The New Orleans City Planning Commission staff has recommended lifting the longstanding cap on the size of the city’s jail in order to accommodate inmates with acute mental health issues. 

In a report released this week, planners recommended the commission approve a request from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to increase the permitted capacity of the jail to 1,731 beds from the 1,438-bed cap approved by the New Orleans City Council in 2011 as a condition on the construction of the $145 million Orleans Justice Center, which opened in 2015. 

The request is for a change to the jail’s conditional use permit that will allow the city of New Orleans to complete a renovation of the jail’s Temporary Detention Center as a short-term housing solution for inmates who require intensive care for severe mental illness, following a March order from the judge overseeing a federal consent decree over the jail. The move will also facilitate the planned construction of a new jail building — the so-called “Phase III” facility that the Sheriff’s Office has sought for years. 

The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the recommendation on Tuesday, but the City Council will ultimately have to approve it. 

The Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly called for more capacity at the jail since the City Council passed the 2011 ordinance, though the idea has faced stringent opposition from criminal justice reform advocates who have sought to reduce the city’s inmate population. 

“It should be noted that perhaps the most contentious aspect of this request surrounds the proposal to increase the number of beds beyond 1,438,” said the City Planning Commission staff report on changes, requested by Sheriff Marlin Gusman. 

The planning staff’s recommendation comes with a number of proposed conditions, including capping the number of inmates housed at the jail’s facilities — rather than the bed capacity — at 1,438. 

The actual number of inmates the jail should safely hold is lower than its overall bed count. In 2012, a consultant who advised the city on the jail said the “functional capacity” of a 1,438-bed jail was about 1,294.

“According to the applicant’s legal counsel, the intent is not to fill all of these beds but rather to provide flexibility in the jail’s ability to properly ‘segregate’ different types of inmates—such as administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, juveniles charged as adults, protective custody, etc.—for safety reasons,” the staff report said. 

The current average daily population is about 1,150, down from more than 7,000 pre-Katrina and more than 3,000 when the 2011 council ordinance passed. 

The staff report noted that issues of best practices for inmate management is “generally outside the scope of the City Planning Commission staff’s review … As such, staff has limited its analysis to zoning matters and has no objection — from a zoning perspective — to approval of the request.”

In the short-term, the change would permit the use of part of the jail’s Temporary Detention Center as housing for inmates with acute mental illness. 

The Temporary Detention Center was supposed to close in 2017 under the provisions of the 2011 ordinance. But the city granted it a temporary permit to remain open. A group of advocates alleged that was illegal and sued last year. That lawsuit is ongoing. 

In the long-term, the proposed zoning change would pave the way for the construction of a proposed 89-bed jail building — the so-called “Phase III” facility — on an empty lot between the main jail building and a kitchen and warehouse facility — as a permanent place to house inmates with serious mental illnesses. The city is working with contractors on designs for the building, according to recent court filings. 

The planned Phase III facility is much smaller than the one that Sheriff Marlin Gusman pushed for years. He previously asked for as many as 764 new beds

The consent decree

Under the federal consent decree approved in 2013, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has to provide adequate facilities for all inmates. But the council’s 2011 ordinance did not require the new Orleans Justice Center to be built to accommodate the needs of inmates who required acute mental health treatment, and the new jail was not built for it. 

In 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk approved a plan by Sheriff Marlin Gusman to move male inmates with acute mental health issues to a state facility, the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. Female inmates with acute needs would stay in New Orleans. 

But in January, the jail’s Independent Compliance Director Darnley Hodge told Africk that the state would no longer take the city’s inmates beginning Oct. 15. The decision set off months of negotiations between Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and the Sheriff’s Office over how to house them. 

On March 14, Africk held a status conference with Hodge, City Council members Jason Williams, Helena Moreno and Joe Giarrusso, as well as a project manager from Cantrell’s Administration, John Sousa. 

“Following discussions with the Court, the City agreed to move forward with the renovation of the Temporary Detention Center,” said a court filing. “The City also reaffirmed, once again, its commitment to building the permanent medical and mental health facility referred to as Phase III on an expedited basis.”

Days later, Africk ordered that the city immediately begin work on converting the Temporary Detention Center. That work is already underway, according to court filings. 

According to the Sheriff’s office and the state Department of Safety and Corrections, the contract with Elayn Hunt has been extended until April 2020 to give the city time to build a temporary facility to house inmates, both male and female, with mental illness. Court filings show that the planned temporary facility will have beds for 39 male inmates and 26-30 female inmates and cost the city between $4.5 and $5 million.

“The City is proceeding with the renovation pursuant to a Consent Decree Federal Court Order,” Cantrell spokeswoman Latonya Norton said in an emailed statement. “The inmates will remain at Elayn Hunt until such time as the renovations are complete.”

In a September filing, the city predicted the construction would be done in April 2020, the same time that the Elayn Hunt extension is set to expire.

The proposal has already faced some pushback. Attached to the staff report are a number of emails from members of the public opposed to the plan. In one, retired Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson pointed out that he was part of the city’s working group that developed the 1,438-bed recommendation. 

“It was the overwhelming opinion that the size of the jail should be capped at 1438 beds,” Johnson wrote. “The goal then and what should be the goal now is to reduce the jail population to the national average. That would give us a jail population of less than 1000. Keep in mind if we only needed 1,438 beds in 2011 (when there were nearly 3000 people in the jail), why would we need to make room for more now?”