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

In a harshly worded 71-page report, federal Magistrate Judge Michael North recommended that the city’s request to halt the construction of an 89-bed jail facility to house detainees with serious mental illness — known as Phase III — be denied. 

“The City asks the Court’s permission to abandon its years-long commitment to permanently address the serious problem of housing inmates with special needs in the jail – those in need of acute and sub-acute mental-health and medical treatment,” North wrote.  “It asks to be allowed to do nothing, indefinitely. In service of this effort, the City has concocted a haphazard collection of unconvincing arguments, some of which appear suddenly overnight only to be later abandoned, others of which change from day to day. None of them have merit.”

North also called attorneys for the city “a group of under-informed newcomers” and said that he has “lost trust in the City as a litigant – in the truth of its representations to the Court and in the sincerity of its professed commitment to solving this problem.” 

He admonished the city for mounting a public campaign against Phase III and attempting to make it a political question. Included in his report was a tweet from Mayor Latoya Cantrell that  said the city is “investing in people not jails,” which North said was then echoed by the City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf during hearings on the issue.

“From the Twittersphere to the courtroom,” North wrote. “How disappointing.” 

LeBeouf said in a statement that the City Attorney’s Office was “currently reviewing” the report.

“As we have maintained throughout these most recent proceedings, the Court’s demand and order for a new jail building in Orleans Parish is contrary to the needs of Orleans Parish residents,” she said. “While the City has invested tremendously in ensuring adequate medical and mental health services for OPSO inmates, the City has requested to do so sensibly, rather than by being forced to build an unnecessary new jail building on the backs of Orleans Parish residents.”

Judge North presided over nearly two weeks of hearings on the city’s request in October. The ultimate decision on the city’s request will be made by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk. 

The city was ordered to move forward with the long-debated Phase III facility in March of 2019.  And for over a year it did, providing monthly updates on their progress to the court. But then in June, it abruptly ordered the architect to stop work on it, and then filed a formal request to discontinue moving forward indefinitely.  

In its initial motion, the city said the new facility was no longer necessary because detainees at the jail were already receiving adequate medical and mental health care, and because the jail population has been steadily declining. They also said that the facility is not financially viable due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city’s budget. 

North rejected all those arguments. He called the idea that detainees were already receiving medical and mental health care up to constitutional standards the “most plainly disconnected from reality” of any of them.

The city has also suggested multiple alternative options to the Phase III facility, though ultimately conceded that only one was actually feasible — a retrofit of the second floor of the current jail. That is also the preferred option for advocacy organizations such as the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and the Vera Institute of Justice.

But North did not find that option a good potential solution. 

“To be kind, this suggestion is not fully thought-out,” he wrote. “Indeed, the whole concept seems to morph from day to day, owing no doubt to the completely improvised nature of the City’s approach to this entire enterprise. In any event, this suggested ‘retrofit’ is not a viable option in any way, shape, or form.”

Sade Dumas, Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) — which mounted a letter writing campaign to North urging him to grant the city’s request — said that the organization was “deeply disturbed” by the report, which she said “defies the recommendations and demands of medical professionals, elected officials, advocates, and hundreds of New Orleanians’ calling for care outside of the carceral system.”

“OPPRC endorses the achievable retrofit jail option that would provide immediate constitutional care to those trapped in the jail who are in dire need of acute mental healthcare,” the organization said in an additional statement. “As part of our mission to decrease incarceration and improve the conditions in OPP, we’re calling for the advancement of the alternative retrofit in lieu of a Phase III jail expansion, all while continuing to advocate for mental health treatment outside of jail walls.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition which was sent after initial publication.

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...