The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously approved what council members touted as a compromise in a long-standing debate between the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and jail reform activists at a meeting on Thursday. The amendment to a 2011 ordinance would allow the continued use of the facility’s Temporary Detention Center to hold mentally ill inmates, prisoners on work release, and kitchen staff until a new facility is built, but would cap the number of prisoners that the jail is allowed to house at 1,250. 

“We have been very intentional in trying to work a plan that will accommodate the required housing of inmates that have acute mental illness, but also understanding that we are very much opposed to increasing the size of the prison,” Councilman Jay Banks said. 

“This is a win for the advocates that want to reduce the size of the prison.”

The Sheriff’s Office original proposal changed the 1,438 bed cap to 1,731, and did not include a cap on the number of inmates. They argued increasing the bed count was necessary in order to safely segregate various inmate populations. The City Planning Commission’s staff issued a report that recommended approving bed-cap increase but proposed adding a 1,438 inmate cap. But in October, the Planning Commission itself recommended that the City Council reject that proposal.

The new agreement will need to have one more vote by the council before it is codified into law.

Activists filled the council chamber for the meeting, holding signs expressing concern for the mentally ill in jail (“You can’t get well in a cell,” “Hospitals not jails,”) and taking direct aim at Sheriff Marlin Gusman (“Gusman’s Gulag,” “Don’t let Gusman mug us”).

Some applauded the council’s proposed compromise, despite reservations.   

“First, I want to just thank you Councilmember Banks for putting us a step in the right direction to reducing the jail population,” said Sade Dumas, Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC). Following the vote the organization put out a press release hailing the councils decision.

Still, Dumas and others expressed concerns over how the city would enforce the new inmate cap, and the continued use of the jail to hold state work-release inmates.

Others were altogether less impressed.  

“This is pathetic,” said Ashlee Pintos, who spoke at the meeting. “We are standing here in one of the most highly incarcerated places in the world, and y’all are talking about the possibility of keeping a jail open, and think that we should be appeased by a minor concession.”

There is urgency to the debate over the use of the Temporary Detention Center. In April 2020, dozens of acutely mentally ill inmates will be transferred from a state facility outside of Baton Rouge, where they have been housed for several years. Currently, the Orleans Justice Center does not have adequate facilities — including suicide resistant cells — to house those prisoners. The 2011 ordinance that permitted the new jail’s construction required that it be outfitted to accommodate all types of inmates, except those requiring acute care

The renovation of TDC would include the addition of suicide resistant cells. 

Activists have sought to end the use of the Temporary Detention Center, which a city council ordinance mandated be closed after the new jail opened. The Mid-City Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit alleging that its continued use is illegal. The Sheriff’s Office disagreed, arguing that they have been given permission by the city to use the facility. 

The “compromise” approved by the Council, however, will not resolve the broader question of whether or not the city will continue with plans to build a new facility, known as Phase III, which would permanently house acutely mentally ill inmates from Elayn Hunt. A federal judge overseeing a consent decree over the jail has mandated that the city move ahead on those plans, but they will ultimately need permission from the City Council to proceed. What will happen if the council rejects those plans is unclear.

Organizations like the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition oppose Phase III, arguing the city can retrofit the current jail building to constitutionally house mentally ill inmates. 

The Sheriff’s Office, along with Compliance Director Darnley Hodge, who is responsible for the day to day operations of the jail, have argued that retrofitting is not viable.

Following the vote, the Sheriff’s office issued a statement applauding the city council for allowing the continued use of the Temporary Detention Center. 

“We thank the City Council for unanimously acting to authorize use of the Temporary Detention Center as a short-term solution for mental health housing,” the statement said. “We look forward to completion and occupancy of the City’s special needs facility, which will serve as a permanent facility to treat our most seriously mentally ill inmates.”

On Wednesday night, activists with OPPRC slept in Duncan Plaza, outside City Hall, to protest the continued use of TDC and any jail expansion. One of those was Vern Baxter, a 70 year old retired UNO professor. He said he saw the continued use of the TDC — which he described as “a funky metal warehouse not much better than the tents we’re going to sleep in tonight” — as a continuation of policies that criminalize poverty, mental illness, and being a person of color. Those policies, he said, have led to Louisiana being one of the most incarcerated places in the world. 

Advocates are also concerned about the jails ability to safely house inmates.  Last week a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the family of Edward Patterson, who died of a fentanyl overdose in Orleans Justice Center last year, against OPSO and the jails healthcare provider, Wellpath. 

Councilmembers were clear that their decision to approve the compromise did not have any bearing on what they would decide with regard to Phase III. 

Councilman Jay Banks put out a statement following the vote: “To be clear, this legislation does not address the actual Phase III building nor any proposed or possible retrofit; those matters were not before us, nor could we legislate those issues within this zoning docket.”

“There’s a lot of stuff that was said today that was so spot on, but does not affect exactly what we are talking about today,” said Councilman Jason Williams at the meeting. “But it will be coming up.” 

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...