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

In a federal court filing on Sunday, the city of New Orleans said that building the controversial Phase III of the New Orleans jail and funding its operating costs would require “cutting basic city services” because of an expected revenue shortfall from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Affrick, who is overseeing a federal consent decree over the jail, meant to bring it into constitutional compliance, ordered the facility to be built in order to accommodate detainees with acute mental illness. 

“In the context of recovering from the sharpest decline in economic activity in U.S. history, it would mean cutting basic city services,” the city wrote of building and funding Phase III. “It would also mean potentially reducing funding for public safety and programs that support other vulnerable populations in Orleans Parish who are not in jail, including the mental health population.”

For years, the Sheriff’s Office has sent inmates with acute mental illness to Elayn Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state facility about 70 miles away from New Orleans.The Orleans Justice Center, which opened in 2015,  does not have adequate facilities 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

But the city is now nearing completion on renovations on a portion of the jail known Temporary Detention Center, including the addition of suicide resistant cells, to house the prisoners from Hunt until a more permanent solution is developed. In the filing on Sunday, the city said those renovations were 95 percent complete. 

Advocates seeking a smaller jail have long opposed the building of Phase III, which would add 89 new beds to the facility, under current plans. That is much smaller than what Sheriff Marlin Gusman had pushed for several years. He previously asked for as many as 764 new beds

Earlier this year, the New Orleans City Council passed what they hailed as a compromise between the Sheriff’s Office and reform groups, which allowed the short-term use of the Temporary Detention Center to house detainees with acute mental illness, but also capped the number of inmates the jail could hold at 1,250. Previously, the jail had a capacity limit — rather than an inmate limit — of 1,438 beds, which was an effective capacity of about 1,300 inmates, according to a consultant who advised the city on the jail

At the time, the Orleans Parish Reform Coalition, a group that has opposed jail expansion plans, warned of building Phase III, and instead advocated using the money for mental health care outside of the jail. 

“It’s economically irresponsible to waste more city funds on incarceration by paying more money for an extra jail building,” said OPPRC Executive Director Sade Dumas in a press release at the time. “Our city needs to address incarceration as a problem, not a solution.”

The city has already started planning the construction of Phase III, and despite the budget concerns, lawyers said in the filing that they were continuing to abide by the court’s order to move forward with the design work. They reported that the contracted architect, Grace Hebert Curtis Architects, was “currently at 25% with the Construction Document Phase of the OJC Phase III facility.”

But the court filing also seems to question the facility’s viability given the city’s expected budget cuts due to the impacts of COVID-19 — as well as its necessity.

“The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that the City is already facing what is likely to be years of reduced funding for government services, with the anticipated costs of Phase III exacerbating needed budget cuts,” the filing reads. “Given these factors, the City will be required to take immediate steps to address these growing concerns.”

It is not clear what exactly those “immediate steps” might look like. A spokesperson for the Mayor’s office did not immediately respond to questions from The Lens. 

In the filing, the city pointed towards a projected $136 million dollar shortfall in 2020 due to decreased sales tax revenue and it’s recently downgraded bond rating as obstacles to building the facility.

“Given these new financial realities, it is imperative that the City address concerns with the ongoing design work on the OJC Phase III facility,” the filing reads. “This project is already projected to cost $51M, which is $15M over budget, and will require the commitment not only of additional bond funds but also a substantial operating budget – money that the City does not have.”

The filing also notes that in recent years, even prior to the pandemic, the city’s jail population has been declining dramatically while the operating costs of the jail have continued to increase. 

According to the filing, in 2013, when the consent judgement went into effect, the average daily population at the jail was around 2,200 people and the city spent $22 million on the jail’s operating budget. (The number was actually closer to $29 million, after “on-behalf payments” for things like fuel and utilities were included.) In 2019, the average daily population was around 1,200 and the city was spending $53 million. 

“Notably, in the span of six years, the City has increased its allocation of operating funding to OPSO by a total of 140%, and this funding has increased by an astounding 375% on a per-inmate basis,” the filing says. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic, the jail population has decreased even further. As of Sunday, it was at 843, according to data on the City Council’s website. 

“While it is still unclear if a sub-850 average daily population is sustainable in the long-term, courts and law enforcement are implementing strategies which are likely to continue to exert downward pressure on the jail population even once the epidemic recedes,” attorneys for the city wrote.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the jail’s compliance director Darnley Hodge have maintained that Phase III is necessary to house and provide care for the acutely mentally ill detainees that are at Hunt, and has rejected alternative proposals put forward by the city — such as renovating the Temporary Detention Center — an existing facility on the jail’s campus now undergoing renovations as a short-term solution —  to make it a permanent facility for acute mental health needs, or retrofitting a floor of the current jail. 

More recently, the Sheriff’s Office has suggested that isolating detainees during the pandemic would have been made easier with the construction of Phase III. 

The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the city’s filing. 

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...