Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson this week became the first city official in New Orleans to publicly endorse a controversial new facility that would add up to 600 additional beds to the new Orleans Parish jail complex under construction.

Clarkson’s backing came Wednesday during a meeting of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman was at City Hall to update the committee on progress on current construction, including a kitchen and warehouse facility, and a 1,438-bed jail, as well as future plans for a new building and possible renovations.

The council in 2011 approved the 1,438-bed facility, and the ordinance approving it said the jail would be used to house all prisoners except for the acutely mentally ill.

In a telling moment Wednesday, Gusman noted that even as old jail buildings were being closed and new ones coming on line, a number of needs remain unaddressed:

  •  jail space for the acutely mentally ill;
  • a primary medical and dental unit;
  • a centralized laundry;
  • space for re-entry programs;
  • housing for community service inmates;
  • space for family visits.

Designs from the architecture firm Grace & Hebert, obtained by The Lens last year, show that the proposed third building includes space for each of the unaddressed needs noted by Gusman.

“We have to have another building for acute mental health,” Clarkson said.

Clarkson offered her endorsement after Gusman told the committee that the FEMA-funded third building had been part of the original, post-Katrina rebuilding plan at the Orleans Parish jail complex.

Gusman was asked by committee Chairwoman Susan Guidry to explain how it was that he and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin had been discussing details about the third facility last year without the knowledge of the City Council.

Guidry told The Lens that our report on the proposed facility was the first she’d heard of it.

Gusman, clearly cognizant of Guidry’s growing role as a criminal justice leader in New Orleans, said, “We’ve had conceptual discussions, but not firm talk” about the new jail.

Letters obtained last year by The Lens between Kopplin and Gusman indicate that those conceptual discussions included specific bed-count numbers for the new facility, even as they were making public pledges to not expand the bed count beyond a council-approved 1,438.

”I could not support any plans for additional construction that have not been shown to be the best possible use of that space.” — Councilwoman Susan Guidry

At the time, Kopplin did hedge his public pledge, made before a group of religious leaders in April, with the caveat that the city might want to explore the option of adding more beds for State Department of Corrections prisoners enrolled in re-entry programs.

A letter from May of last year from Gusman to Kopplin said the proposed jail would have 106 medical beds; 164 mental-health beds; 256 re-entry beds; and 128 minimum-custody beds.

The 1,438 number has become a line in the sand for criminal justice advocates in New Orleans, who have repeatedly demanded that the city not eclipse that bed count number under any circumstance.

The decision to cap the bed count at 1,438 came after two years of penal hand-wringing by the Landrieu administration, which put together a Criminal Justice Working Group and brought in outside firepower in the form of criminologist James Austin – the man responsible for the 1,438 number.

But in accepting Austin’s recommendation and writing its ordinance based on it, Gusman said the city was also was accepting Austin’s caveat that the “functional capacity” of the new jail would actually be 1,284 beds.

Current prison best practices call for a 10 percent cushion of empty beds to accommodate the proper classification of prisoners, and to provide flexibility so that, for example, prison officials aren’t forced to mix genders on prison tiers.

The prisoner count at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday was 2,231, Gusman said.

The city is putting a lot of faith in two prisoner-reduction gambits to reduce the population to a number that will fit in the new facility.

A Vera Institute of Justice pre-trial services program has helped stanch the flow of low-grade criminals into the parish jail, as have New Orleans Police Department policies that now issue summonses for small-time pot charges instead of making arrests.

But it’s an open question whether a jail population that has dropped from an average daily inmate count of 6,288 in 2005 to 2,804 in 2012 will drop to 1,284 by February, when the new jail facility will open and all others are scheduled to be phased out.

Gusman told Guidry he could accommodate the unaddressed needs by renovating other buildings. But, he said, “You asked me to come here to talk about future construction.”

“We offered the sheriff the opportunity to present his proposal for additional beds to the working group last summer so it could be evaluated, and that offer still stands.” — mayoral  spokesman Ryan Berni.

Gusman added that in his initial meetings with FEMA officials after Hurricane Katrina, the new facility now under consideration was part of the proposed overall rebuilding project, and that FEMA would pay for it.

Jail architect Gerald Hebert was on hand for the committee meeting and said the city was missing out on a huge opportunity to have the federal government pay for a building that would contain space dedicated to prisoners with medical and acute mental health issues.

The approved jail being built contains small satellite medical units on each floor, but no centralized medical facility.

Further, Gusman said that the new central plant that powers the facilities was paid for by FEMA, and that it was built to accommodate the third building. He said that under FEMA rules, if the city didn’t build this new jail, the cost of that plant would have to be paid for by the Law Enforcement District.

A statement from FEMA provided clarification on that point Friday afternoon. 

The central plant, it said, is part of the new kitchen and warehouse facility and its cost is wrapped in to the $63.3 million that FEMA has obligated for that building. FEMA agreed to pay for the central plant based on the restoration of three facilities, including a former lockup where the proposed third facility would be built.

“As each facility is rebuilt, FEMA will incrementally fund the portion of the central plant as it relates to the eligible facility,” it said. “If a facility is not rebuilt, FEMA’s participation in the central plant will be capped at the value of the existing restored facilities.”

The Law Enforcement District provides funding to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office through bonds paid for from property taxes.

That third building had been awkwardly edited out of previous drawings Gusman gave to the council. Gusman once famously quipped that the lot could be  as green space.

And again on Wednesday, a photocopied packet of materials provided by Gusman contains a diagram that hides the building behind a big square block.

“Let’s talk about that big square in the middle,” Guidry said.

Guidry acknowledged that the council “excluded space for the acutely mentally ill in the ordinance. We need to provide for that.”

In an email to The Lens Friday, Guidry said she was going along with Gusman’s assertion that “any discussion of a third facility is strictly theoretical at this point.”

She added that if plans were developed for the building, that they’d be reviewed by the Criminal Justice Working Group and the City Planning Commission before coming to a vote at the council.

Guidry is a member of the working group.

“While I understand that it would be impractical for the housing unit to be disconnected from the kitchen and warehouse,” she said, “and that there is a desperate need for improved mental health treatment services in the jail, I could not support any plans for additional construction that have not been shown to be the best possible use of that space.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the administration had consistently taken the position that more work needed to be done to determine whether the 1,438 figure was adequate to the city’s needs.

“We offered the sheriff the opportunity to present his proposal for additional beds to the working group last summer so it could be evaluated, and that offer still stands,” Berni said in an email.

Clarkson did not respond to several attempts for further comment after the meeting.

Update: A statement from FEMA has been added since the original version of this was published.

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...