The Orleans Parish jail's Temporary Detention Center, prior to renovations. (City of New Orleans)

The New Orleans City Planning Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to deny a proposal by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office that would increase the capacity of the New Orleans jail above the longstanding cap of 1,438 beds and pave the way for a new jail building, known as Phase III, that would add 89 new beds and house inmates with acute mental illness. 

The City Planning Commission’s vote is a recommendation. The ultimate decision on the proposal will be made by the New Orleans City Council. 

The Planning Commission’s vote is the latest development in a protracted debate over the size of the jail, and how to accommodate prisoners with acute mental illness who have been held at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state facility about 70 miles away from New Orleans, since 2014. Those prisoners will be returning to New Orleans in April 2020, when OPSO’s agreement with the state expires. 

The request from the Sheriff’s Office would amend the jail’s conditional use permit to allow the city to renovate the Temporary Detention Center to house those inmates until Phase III is built,  changing the bed cap from 1,438 to 1,731. It would also allow housing state inmates participating in work-release programs and inmates working as kitchen staff to be housed in the TDC. The City Planning Commission’s staff recommended setting a cap of 1,438 inmates, rather than a bed capacity of 1,438. 

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has long sought additional capacity at the jail. In 2016, Gusman relinquished operational control of the jail, pursuant to a federal court order as part of a 2013 consent decree intended to correct dangerous and unconstitutional conditions at the jail. 

The officials who have taken that control, former Independent Compliance Director Gary Maynard and current Compliance Director Darnley Hodge, have likewise pushed for additional beds to accommodate inmates who need acute mental health treatment. Criminal justice reform advocates have argued against an expansion, saying that the current jail, opened in 2015, could be renovated instead. 

According to the sheriff, the desire to increase the number of beds in the jail is not an attempt to raise the cap on the overall number of inmates. Rather, they argue that more beds are necessary to allow for flexibility to separate various categories of inmates for safety reasons.  

But Flozell Daniels Jr., President and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, who was a member of the Mayor Landrieu’s advisory group to determine the appropriate jail size, said that the 1,438 bed cap, adopted by the New Orleans City Council in 2011, took into account the need for that flexibility, and the bed cap was never meant to be equal to the inmate cap. 

“There was never a moment when we thought that it was appropriate to have 1,438 people in jail,” he told the Planning Commission. 

Justin Schmidt, a land use attorney representing Sheriff Gusman and Compliance Director Hodge, was the only speaker defending the proposal during Tuesday’s meeting. Neither Gusman nor Hodge were present at the meeting.

Dozens of people spoke in opposition, however, voicing concerns over prisoner safety, the failure of the jail to adequately care for the mentally ill, and even the potential for the extra beds to be contracted out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Current policy, adopted in 2013, prohibits holding inmates at the request of ICE, but advocates said they feared that could change when the consent decree is lifted. 

Last February, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) wrote a letter to the Mayor and City Council urging them to oppose a Phase III with any additional beds and to end the use of the Temporary Detention Center. 

“While we share a deep concern for the condition of people in the jail with acute mental illness, Phase III is an inappropriate way to care for people with severe psychological disorders or psychiatric disorders, who do not belong in jail,” the letter reads. “Providing constitutional conditions in the existing jail can be achieved through a smart retrofit of Phase II facilities to safely house people until they can be transferred to a hospital. City money used to operate a mental health jail is money that could be spent on mental health treatment in the community, to provide care for people so they never enter the criminal justice system, and to care for them when they are released.”

The letter was signed by over forty other organizations, including the ACLU of Louisiana, the Foundation for Louisiana, and the Orleans Public Defenders. 

OPPRC is also a party to a lawsuit that is challenging the legality of continuing to operate the Temporary Detention Center beyond 2017, when the 2011 City Council ordinance dictated that it be closed.

On Tuesday, Sade Dumas, the executive director of the group, said she was “pleasantly surprised with the vote” and hopes “that the mayor sees that the community is against operating new jail buildings.” She stressed the importance of community input throughout the process. 

Following the vote, Schmidt said that given the amount of community opposition to the proposal, the decision was expected. 

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the consent decree, ordered that the city move ahead with a plan it submitted to  renovate two buildings of the Temporary Detention Center and continue the programming phase of Phase III. Though the zoning request that the Planning Commission considered on Tuesday has yet to be approved, the city has begun work on the Temporary Detention Center.   

“Noteworthy progress continues in moving both projects forward,” the city said in a court filing in September. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...