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

At a meeting of the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee last week, city officials presented the most detailed look yet at plans to retrofit a single floor of the New Orleans jail in order to create a suitable space to house detainees with acute and subacute mental illness — and to avoid the construction of a controversial new 89-bed jail facility known as Phase III.

The meeting on Thursday also signaled a shift in thinking by members of the City Council — in particular City Council President and District Attorney candidate Jason Williams — who in 2017 voted to move forward with the Phase III building and declined to advance the possibility of a retrofit option. Williams, at the time, called the Phase III facility a “moral obligation.”

The only member of the City Council to vote against moving forward with Phase III in 2017 was LaToya Cantrell, who also wanted to continue to consider the possibility of a retrofit, and who later that year was elected mayor of New Orleans. Cantrell took office in May 2018. 

But last Thursday, Williams suggested his support for abandoning Phase III in favor of a retrofit. 

“Frankly the condition of our country, and our city, and of our criminal legal system has drastically changed since the first conversation in this chamber,” he said during the presentation, which was for informational purposes and did not include a vote. 

In a Tuesday statement to The Lens, Williams said that the declining jail population and rates of violent crime, combined with limited resources due to the pandemic, made the construction of a larger jail facility “unwise.” 

“Our strategic efforts to reduce jail size for all populations have proven widely successful,” he said. “By all measures of public safety violent crime has trended down as jail reduction strategies have ramped up over the past two terms. At a time when so many New Orleanians and New Orleans businesses will be in desperate need of resources it is unwise to invest our limited resources in a larger jail facility.”

But in the near future at least, the fate of Phase III is out of the hands of the City Council.

Last week’s presentation came as the city faces off in federal court against the U.S. Department of Justice, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, and civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated in the jail, all of whom argue that the city is required to construct Phase III due to a prior agreement and in order to provide constitutionally adequate care for people in the jail with acute and sub-acute mental health needs. 

The city started planning work on the Phase III facility in March of 2019, after reluctantly agreeing to it, and was ordered to move forward by a federal judge. Preliminary work continued on the facility for more than a year. But in June, citing a declining jail population and budget concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic, the city abruptly announced its intention to abandon work on the building, and filed a motion asking to be relieved from the judge’s order.

In its initial motion, however, the city did not present any alternatives to Phase III, and argued that people in custody at the jail were already receiving adequate mental health care. 

The question of what infrastructure is necessary in order to constitutionally house detainees with acute mental illness has been an issue since it was confirmed that the current jail — the Orleans Justice Center — was being built in a way that would not provide adequate space for those individuals. This should not have come as a complete surprise. A 2011 ordinance that authorized building the Orleans Justice Center specifically exempted people requiring acute mental health care from a list of the classes of detainees the new jail was required to accommodate. The new facility opened in 2015 to replace the crumbling Orleans Parish Prison complex. 

Civil rights lawyers have argued that the current jail lacks enough suicide-resistant cells or space for counseling and therapy sessions, and that an unprotected mezzanine level in the jail can allow for detainees to harm themselves. Under a federal consent decree put in place in 2013 to bring the jail conditions up to the standards of the U.S. Constitution, the jail must provide care for all types of incarcerated people. 

As a short-term solution, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the consent decree litigation, signed off on an agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the state to house male detainees with acute mental illness at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison about an hour outside of New Orleans. 

But since that time, a debate has dragged on about how to return those individuals to the city. 

Criminal justice reform organizations and advocates — such as the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition — have been advocating for a portion of the current jail building to be retrofitted in order to accommodate those patients. They argue that a retrofit would be less costly and, crucially, would not increase the jail’s physical footprint or add additional beds. 

The Sheriff’s Office has consistently expressed the need for a Phase III — which would be constructed on a currently empty lot between the main jail building and the jail’s kitchen/warehouse facility. There are currently two footbridges extending out from each one of those structures leading to nowhere, in apparent anticipation of a Phase III structure that would join them together.

They have, in court filings, suggested a few alternatives to Phase III, though the details have been limited. Two of the options would require making the Temporary Detention Center — a facility that was recently renovated to house patients in custody with mental illness until another solution is available — into a permanent facility. But on Thursday the city only presented one option to the criminal justice committee — the retrofit of a single floor of the current jail building. 

All of those plans have been opposed by the Sheriff’s Office as unworkable. 

The Plan 

The retrofit plan that was presented to the City Council committee on Thursday would renovate three housing pods on the jail’s second floor, which the city says would provide adequate space for patients in custody with acute and sub-acute mental illness while costing less money in both construction and operating costs. 

James Austin — a consultant who has worked previously with the city on jail population reduction efforts, including with a working group that developed the proposal for what would become the Orleans Justice Center — presented the plan to the commitee.

According to Austin, housing pod renovations would include replacing the doors and front walls on cells to increase visibility, repurposing some cells as private interview rooms, adding nursing stations, and securing the mezzanine areas to prevent patients from attempting to jump from them. 

The plan would also have the benefit of centralizing all the patients on the same floor as the medical clinic, he said.

Austin argued that the retrofit would cost less. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would cover at least some of the construction costs for Phase III, the city has said that it would also have to contribute a portion. (That claim has been disputed by attorneys for a top jail official, who said the city has access to more than enough federal money to cover the entire cost of building Phase III.)

The construction costs for a retrofit, however, would be significantly less and could all be covered by FEMA money. Advocates have suggested that any leftover money could then be used for establishing more robust mental health care options outside of the criminal legal system. 

But Austin also said that Phase III would cost over $8 million a year to operate, stemming from increased staffing to care for and transfer inmates, while the retrofit would add no additional yearly costs.

“A very key thing that people need to understand is that this plan requires no additional security or mental health or medical staff,” Austin said. 

The retrofit option, however, wouldn’t provide some of the things that a Phase III facility would — including an infirmary, a laundry center, and expanded visitation areas for attorney-client visits. 

New Orleans City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf, who was also present at the meeting, said that given the city’s financial strain, the retrofit was the best option. 

“I just think it is important that we focus on the fact that this is about efficiency in operations,” she said. “This is about making certain that OPSO inmates get what they need, but we also want to create efficiency.”

2017 meeting

Thursday was not the first time the City Council has been asked to consider whether to back a retrofit or a new building. 

Back in 2017, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration came to the city council with a proposal to direct the City Planning Commission to study an 89-bed Phase III facility proposal that had been developed by then-jail Compliance Director Gary Maynard. 

The hearing was contentious. 

Councilmember Susan Guidry, along with Cantrell, advocated for having the planning commission study an option to retrofit the current jail, in addition to Phase III.

Dozens of activists and community members urged the council to send the retrofit option to the City Planning Commission and ultimately reject the Phase III plans.

“Here we are talking about only looking at one when we owe it to our people to look at all the options, all alternatives, before coming to a conclusion,” Cantrell said. “That’s what I’m asking today. That we move these options forward going through the City Planning Commision process before we make a decision.” 

Many of the arguments that the city is currently making with regards to Phase III — including the declining jail population, the city’s limited budget resources, and the sustained costs that Phase III would require — were put forward at the meeting by advocates during the public comments. 

“The operating costs for a new facility are considerably higher than the retrofit option,” said Flozell Daniels, Jr. “Many of us are going to be coming to you in this budget season asking for additional resources for children and families, asking for additional resources to look at best practice re-entry services, things that really do help lift families and communities up so that we can invest in things that actually help build people up and not tear them down. This effort is going to cost us more money than we can actually afford.”

But Williams at the time was adamant that the 89-bed Phase III was the only acceptable option on the table. 

“I believe that this 89-bed facility, with the commitment that it can only be used for the acute mentally ill, is not just our moral obligation to the people that have been shipped off to Hunt, it is our commitment to a consent decree that we are under,” he said. “And we are duty-bound in making sure the people that are in our custody now have fair, adequate, and humane treatment.”

Then-New Orleans City Attorney Rebecca Dietz argued that going back to the federal judge with an alternative option to Phase III would not only be more time consuming, but would potentially result in city officials being held in contempt of court. 

Ultimately, only Guidry and Cantrell voted for an amendment to send a retrofit option to the City Planning Commission. And only Cantrell voted against the motion for the Phase III study. But nothing came of the motion passed in 2017. The city never completed an application to the City Planning Commission, and therefore the commission never produced a study. 

But at the meeting last Thursday, Pres Kabacoff — a real-estate developer who has been involved in criminal justice reform issues, and is an advocate for a retrofit option — suggested that the council could help the city out this time around in its ongoing legal battle to oppose Phase III.

“I think we need a resolution out of the City Council to present to the judge,” Kabacoff said. 

“That’s what we’re working on,” Williams responded.

In his statement to The Lens, Williams said that Austin’s “new retrofit presentation seems to address many of the current and past concerns of earlier iterations, which is why I believed it necessary to renew the special populations facility discourse publicly at the last Criminal Justice Committee meeting.”

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...