Wednesday afternoon, New Orleans Sheriff’s Office administrators told City Council members how they’ve contained costs to deal with a much smaller allocation from the city than Sheriff Marlin Gusman requested.

Little mentioned, however, was the $4 million bill looming for Gusman’s new plan to house mentally ill inmates — a key issue in the federal consent decree mandating reforms at Orleans Parish Prison.

Gusman wants to house as many as 44 male inmates with serious mental illnesses at a state prison in St. Gabriel for up to three years, renovate a building at Orleans Parish Prison to accommodate male inmates with less serious conditions, and renovate another building at the jail for mentally ill female inmates.

And he wants the city to pay for it all: $4 million in startup costs alone.

The Sheriff’s Office presentation was first on the agenda for the council’s criminal justice committee. Elizabeth Boyer, Gusman’s financial manager, and Chief Corrections Deputy Michael Tidwell described how they’re dealing with a smaller budget: striking a cheaper food preparation contract with Aramark, hiring fewer new staff and delaying pay raises, and paying their lawyers by the hour rather than a flat monthly fee.

The only reference to mental-health bills came when Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked about medical expenses.

“We’re in discussion with the city at this point in time,” Tidwell said. “Hopefully we can agree on what we’re going to do with acute and sub-acute mental health inmates in the short-term.”

The city and the Sheriff’s Office appear to be far from reaching any agreement.

A court report filed last month said the city objected to Gusman’s plan because of its potential costs, then identified as “at least $5.78 million” over three years.

In a court filing last week, a lawyer for Gusman detailed just how much improved mental-health care would cost. This week, Gusman’s lawyer asked the city to pay the bills.

The $4 million estimate includes up to $2 million to renovate the jail to house female inmates, even though Gusman has only identified four now in custody.

What’s more, Gusman’s plan counts on the construction of a controversial building — which the city hasn’t approved — as a long-term solution for mental health needs.

Last month, Gusman proposed sending mentally ill inmates to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel after a federal judge decided that seriously ill inmates should not continue to be held at the jail’s Templeman V facility.

Since Elayn Hunt doesn’t house women, Gusman would move mentally ill female inmates to the Temporary Detention Center at the jail while he renovates Templeman V for them.

According to Gusman’s filing, there are only four female inmates who are considered “acutely” or “sub-acutely” mentally ill. The jail should plan for another six based on population trends, the filing says.

“This small population cannot reasonably justify the type of expenses the Sheriff is proposing for the future,” the city’s attorneys wrote in a response filing.

In addition, Gusman plans to build a facility in the Temporary Detention Center to allow mentally ill male inmates to transition into the general jail population. The cost to prepare that facility would be as much as $1.6 million.

It would cost about $400,000 to renovate Elayn Hunt Correctional Center for the mentally ill inmates, according to Gusman’s court filing. That includes:

In addition, Gusman wants to pay for several Department of Corrections guards to patrol the unit. That, according to his filing, would cost $144,000 per month for the first 30 to 60 days in order to avoid guard reductions at the jail.

In a response filing, attorneys for the city say the rate is much higher than those guards are normally paid and question whether they will be needed longer than two months.

“The Sheriff offers no specifics,” and the annual cost would be $1.68 million, the city’s attorneys wrote in a response filing. (Actually, it would be almost $1.73 million based on Gusman’s monthly estimate.)

Then there are meal costs: $3.50 per inmate per day, or $56,000 annually for 44 inmates.

Fuel for the medical transport units is estimated at $2,000 to $4,000 per month. City lawyers called that “excessive” and “exaggerated,” figuring a maximum of $880 per month to make the round trip each day.

There are a number of unknowns in Gusman’s proposal. For instance, Gusman has retained an outside vendor, CorrectHealth, to provide additional medical and mental health staffing in New Orleans and at the prison in St. Gabriel.

The Sheriff’s Office is seeking a company to handle all medical operations at the jail, which is expected to lower medical costs. CorrectHealth wants that work, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Phil Stelly said in April.

But Gusman’s court filing doesn’t say how much the CorrectHealth deal costs. According to the city’s court filing, the contract has never been provided to the court. So “the City is unable to ascertain the reasonableness or excessiveness for such proposed costs.”

Gusman’s filing is unclear about the cost of leasing the space at Elayn Hunt. In previous court filings, Gusman said it would cost only $1 per year. Last week, the Sheriff’s Office’s filing said the state would lease space for three years for a “nominal cost.”

“If the lease costs are market value or even a fraction of market value, just the use of Hunt could be several million dollars each year,” the city responded.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and inmates responded to Gusman’s proposal, calling it promising but incomplete. Their response says the proposal does not adequately address mental health staffing and does not provide an adequate short-term plan for male inmates with less serious mental health issues.

Moreover, it notes that according to consent decree monitor Susan McCampbell, Gusman can’t say for sure how many current prisoners would require mental health care “because the Sheriff does not utilize a proper mental health screening tool.”

That filing does not address the funding issues.

A hearing on the plan for mentally ill inmates is scheduled in U.S. District Court on Monday.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...