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

The New Orleans City Council gave final passage to an ordinance on Thursday that will allow the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to house acutely mentally ill prisoners, along with work release inmates and kitchen workers, at a jail facility known as the Temporary Detention Center, but also caps the number of inmates the jail is allowed to hold at 1,250. 

The ordinance replaces a 2011 ordinance that permitted the construction of the Orleans Justice Center to replace the city’s sprawling former jail, Orleans Parish Prison. The 2011 ordinance didn’t have an inmate cap. Instead, it placed a cap on the number of inmate beds — effectively limiting the size of the jail — at 1,438. (A 1,438-bed jail has a functional capacity of just under 1,300 inmates, a contracted prison expert said in 2012.)

Thursday’s ordinance was passed without debate, but when it was first voted on at a meeting last month it was presented as a compromise intended to satisfy both the Sheriff’s Office, who say they need to use the facility to constitutionally house inmates with acute mental health needs, and advocates who want to see the facility permanently closed and oppose any increase of the jail population. 

The vote will allow the Temporary Detention Center to remain open until the construction of a permanent facility for inmates with acute mental health problems. Under current plans, that facility will be the long-debated Phase III building. 

Of immediate concern for the city are dozens of acutely mentally ill inmates currently being held at a state facility that will return to Orleans Parish when a contract with the state ends in April. 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 Temporary Detention Center will be outfitted with suicide resistant cells to accomodate those prisoners.

The Temporary Detention Center was supposed to close after the new jail was built, under the 2011 ordinance, but the city granted it a temporary permit to remain open. A group of advocates alleged that was illegal, arguing that its continued use would require City Council approval, and sued in 2018. It is not yet clear how Thursday’s vote will affect that suit, which is ongoing.

“This compromise provides that the Sheriff can provide the space required to house inmates with mental health issues but does not allow for the number of inmates to increase,” City Councilman Jay Banks said in a statement following the December vote. He noted that the ordinance would bring the city closer to reaching 998 prisoners by the end of 2020, the goal of a $2 million grant given to the city by the MacArthur Foundation. The jail’s population was about 1,050 as of this week, compared to 6,000 to 7,000 in OPP more than a decade ago. 

Banks was not available for comment before the vote on Thursday. 

The compromise was applauded by both the Sheriff’s Office and a number of prison reform groups, including Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) and Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), when it was voted on in December.

But in an interview Wednesday, the director of OPPRC, Sade Dumas, also expressed some concern over the legislation, including a lack of restrictions on holding state and federal prisoners, youth, and people who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

In addition, she worried that removing the bed cap and replacing it with an inmate cap could allow for the Sheriff’s office to create the infrastructure for a larger jail population in the future. 

“We would like to limit the number of beds, because with beds you’re automatically limiting the number of people. What if the sheriff decides to add 600 more beds, there is a new city council … and there is nothing to stop the sheriff from going over?” Dumas said.  

“We can’t really trust Sheriff [Marlin] Gusman to do the right thing just because of what’s on paper. We have to make sure that systems are in place that won’t allow him to do anything wrong.”

As evidence, Dumas pointed in part to the Sheriff’s use of the Temporary Detention Center since 2017. OPPRC was one of the groups filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office alleging that that use was illegal. The Sheriff’s Office has argued that it had permission from the city to use the facility. 

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. 

If any part of the ordinance is violated, including the inmate cap, it would result in a misdemeanor and cancel the conditional use permit.   

Thursday’s passage of the ordinance is part of a long-standing debate over the size of the jail, and whether or not it is necessary to build a new facility to house acutely mentally ill inmates, known as Phase III.  The Sheriff’s Office, along with Independent Compliance Director Darnley Hodge have argued the facility is necessary. The compliance director, rather than Gusman, is in charge of jail operations as a result of a 2016 order in the ongoing federal consent decree, which is meant to bring the city’s jail up to constitutional standards. 

Reform groups, including OPPRC, have argued that the current jail building can be retro-fitted to accommodate inmates with mental illness, particularly given the jail’s steadily declining prisoner population. 

A federal judge overseeing a consent decree meant to ensure the jail is being managed up to constitutional standards has mandated that the city move forward with plans to build Phase III. According to a December court filing, the architecture firm contracted by the city is in the final stages of design development for the facility. The projected completion date is June 2022. 

While the ordinance mentions Phase III, it repeatedly refers to a “permanent facility and/or unit” to house mentally ill inmates, and in his statement in December, Banks said that the ordinance is not a final approval of Phase III. Though the city has agreed in court to move ahead with plans on a new building, Banks indicated in the statement that a retrofit of the current jail may still be a possibility. 

“To be clear, this legislation does not address the actual Phase III building nor any proposed or possible retrofit,” the statement said. “Those matters were not before us, nor could we legislate those issues within this zoning docket.”

Nicholas 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...