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

In a federal court filing on Monday, attorneys for the city of New Orleans said that renovations  of a jail facility known as the Temporary Detention Center were complete and that “keys have been turned over” to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. The renovations cost $6.2 million to complete, according to the city’s filing.

The purpose of the renovations was to provide a space to temporarily accommodate New Orleans detainees with acute mental illness, who have been sent to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison in St. Gabriel, since 2014 — but it is unclear when exactly the detainees from Hunt will be transferred back to New Orleans.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has generally suspended transfers of detainees due to COVID-19, but some transfers have continued to take place by special request

Officials from the DOC and the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment from The Lens.

The renovation began after the Department of Corrections informed the Sheriff’s Office, early last year, that it would no longer house detainees in OPSO custody at Elayn Hunt. According to the Sheriff’s Office, along with other parties to a long-running federal consent decree — meant to bring the notorious jail into compliance with the U.S. Constitution — the main jail building is not equipped for them, leaving nowhere else to house them.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who presides over the consent decree case, told the city and the Sheriff’s Office to come up with a solution for where to house those detainees. 

The two-part plan agreed upon by the city and the Sheriff’s Office was to renovate the Temporary Detention Center as a stop-gap measure to hold the detainees while a more permanent facility, known as Phase III, was being built. 

In March 2019, Africk ordered the parties to move forward with their plan.

But while the completion of TDC renovations has satisfied the first part of that plan, and provided a temporary solution for housing those detainees, the fate of Phase III has become less certain in recent months. 

For over a year  the city was complying with the order to build Phase III, and provided regular updates to the judge. The city hired an architect, and moved forward with programing and construction plans. In April, the city estimated that Phase III would be completed in the summer of 2022.

But in late May the city abruptly halted work on the facility, claiming that it was too expensive, and that given a declining jail population and improved medical and mental health care at the jail, it was unnecessary. In a court filing, the city asked the federal judge for permission to abandon Phase III plans altogether.

In its initial filings, the city did not propose any alternatives for where to house permanently house the inmates. A city official told reporters that the TDC would be sufficient until at least 2022.

More recently, lawyers for the city have suggested the possibility that further renovations of TDC, or a retrofit of a single floor of the main jail building, could be permanent solutions. They have also argued that under federal law, a judge does not have the authority to mandate the construction of a new jail building.

But all the other parties in the consent decree lawsuit have come out against the city’s attempt to halt Phase III construction. The Department of Justice and civil rights attorneys representing jail inmates have argued that mental health care is still a problem, and that structural deficiencies in the current jail make constitutional care impossible. OPSO has argued that renovations of the TDC or the current jail are unworkable solutions.

Meanwhile, the city and advocacy groups have been discussing possible solutions, including developing more robust emergency mental health care options outside of the jail.

A hearing on the city’s request to stop work on Phase III has been scheduled for Oct. 5. It is unclear if it will be held in person or via videoconference, but a judge has said that it will be open to the public. 

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...