City Councilwoman Susan Guidry told The Lens recently that a major new jailhouse under discussion between the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Landrieu Administration was news – unwelcome news – to her.

The “Phase III Concept” jail plan would add yet another FEMA-funded lockup to the Orleans Parish Prison campus, with between 600 and 650 jail beds being projected. The new facility would be situated between two buildings now under construction along Interstate 10.

The proposed facility is at odds with the 2011 city ordinance that caps the total bed count at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office at 1,438 for almost all classes of inmates, Guidry said.

“The ordinance states what the limitations are with regard to what the sheriff can build at this time,” said Guidry, who is co-chairwoman of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee. She said The Lens’ recent report describing correspondence between Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin and Sheriff Marlin Gusman was the first she had seen or heard of plans for an expanded jail.

The Phase I building is the kitchen and warehouse facility that is nearing completion. The Phase II building is the council-approved 1,438-bed facility being built nearby. An empty city-owned parcel sits between the two.

Gusman also has built a 400-bed Temporary Detention Center with FEMA money, whose basketball courts are visible from the interstate near the Jefferson Davis Parkway overpass.

Gusman initially laid out in a May letter to Kopplin that the Phase III building would have 750 new beds. It would be connected to the other buildings by walkways.

The figure of 1,438 has been deployed by criminal-justice activists in the community to hold politicians accountable to a smaller jail than the 7,500-bed sprawl of buildings extant at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

The figure came out of meetings by the Jail Working Group, established by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010. The group was supposed to recommend a final figure for the jail by November 2010, but it has yet to do so.

Kopplin is chairman of the Jail Working Group, which has not met since October. Guidry is also a member.

A February 2008 FEMA news release sheds light on the research that may have gone into the decision to cap the new jail at 1,438 beds.

It highlights post-Katrina progress being made in New Orleans, and notes that the old Templeman III and Templeman IV jails were being demolished by Gusman at that time to make way for the two new buildings.

As it turns out, those two Templeman buildings together housed 1,438 inmates, and were filled to capacity at the time of the hurricane.

The January 2011 ordinance granted a conditional-use permit to Gusman to build the Phase II jail on the same site, as long as it didn’t eclipse 1,438 beds.

Any additional facilities or additions to the bed count are subject to the council’s approval.

The ordinance states that 1,438 beds had to be sufficient to accommodate “any type of prisoner under any jurisdiction.”

Those classes of inmates include state and federal prisoners, substance abusers and mentally ill inmates, female inmates, and inmates participating in re-entry programs.

“These are all people who are supposed to fit in the 1,438,” Guidry said.

Excluded from the incarceration cap are those with acute mental illness.

On April 26, several city leaders agreed to the interdenominational Micah Project’s demand for a public pledge that the bed count would not eclipse 1,438.

Kopplin and Gusman both made that pledge, as did New Orleans Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter, and a representative from Guidry’s office.

Less than two weeks later, Gusman wrote Kopplin to discuss building space for 750 more inmates. He broke them down like this:

  • 106 beds for medical prisoners, including security cells, isolation cells, and double-occupancy cells;
  • 164 beds for mental health housing, 72 beds for male and female acutely mentally ill; 92 beds for male and female mentally ill;
  • 96 beds for protective custody inmates (two-thirds male, one-third female);
  • 48 beds for administrative segregation;
  • 80 beds for disciplinary cases;
  • 256 beds for re-entry prisoners

The Phase III plan also includes an on-site medical facility.

Gusman sent revised figures for the new jail on May 25, which knocked about 100 beds off the first proposal.

“To get it to 600 we may want to focus on more medical and mental health bed reductions,” Gusman wrote.

City officials insist that the Phase III Concept is in the discussion phase.

“The jail working group agreed there was still work to be done as it relates to …evaluating how many additional jail beds will be needed,” Berni said in a written statement last month.

“To your larger question about plan for that particular parcel, research and discussions continue at this time,” he added.

Those discussions now include Guidry.

“I’m going to need to talk to Andy,” Guidry said, after reviewing the architectural plans for the Phase III jail provided to her by The Lens.

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...