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

The protracted legal dispute over whether or not the city must move forward with building a new jail facility known as Phase III, that would house detainees with acute and subacute mental illness, along with serious medical conditions, could be nearing a close.

After over a week of hearings on the issue in October of last year, a federal magistrate judge issued a blistering report last month recommending that U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk — who has presided over a long-running federal consent decree for the jail — deny the city’s request to halt work on the facility.

Other parties to the consent decree case, including the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights lawyers representing jail inmates — have all come out in favor of the facility, arguing it’s the best available way to ensure constitutional care for inmates with acute care needs. The city, however, has pointed to broad opposition from local criminal justice reform groups, who oppose expanding the jail’s footprint and argue that mentally ill inmates should be treated in a traditional healthcare setting, not a jail.

In his December report, Magistrate Judge Michael North said that before making the request to abandon Phase III last year, the city had agreed multiple times over several to building it. He characterized the city’s recent arguments against Phase III as “haphazard” and “unconvincing,” writing that he had “lost faith in the city as a litigant.” 

Later that month, the city filed objections to North’s report and recommendation, saying that it report contained “factual errors and mischaracterizations” and that it did not acknowledge the fact that “Black and Brown communities are disproportionately ravaged” by “overinvestment in incarceration.” Attorneys for the city enumerated 47 specific objections to the report. 

Last Friday, the inmates’ attorneys, the Department of Justice, and the Sheriff’s Office all filed responses to those objections, arguing in support of the North’s recommendation that the city be required to move forward with Phase III — likely the last arguments to be made before Africk makes his final decision.

While the debate around Phase III has been taking place for years, the most recent dispute began last June when after a year of work on the facility, the city announced that it had stopped paying a team of architects designing the building to move forward. The city argued that given changing circumstances — including city budget fallout from the coronavirus pandemic — the $51 million building was now financially infeasible, though much of the cost will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In addition, attorneys for the city said it was no longer necessary because of a declining jail population and improved medical and mental health care at the jail. 

The city’s decision galvanized many criminal justice reform activists, who have long opposed the Phase III facility or any jail expansion. They have favored retrofitting a floor of the current jail facility to provide care for detainees with mental illness, and encouraged officials to invest in community-based mental healthcare outside of the criminal justice system.

But the other parties to the litigation objected to the city’s effort to stop work on the new facility, arguing that the city was going back on its prior agreements, and that Phase III is necessary to provide care for the inmates — who until last year were housed at a state prison, Elayn Hunt Correctional facility, near Baton Rouge.

The city, the other parties argued, was overestimating the financial burden that Phase III would have on its budget, and rejected the city’s argument that more open beds due a declining jail population had any relevance to the structural deficiencies in the current jail that prevent the provision of adequate care. 

In their most recent filings, the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Justice, and the inmate-plaintiffs’ lawyers at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center put forward many of those same arguments they have been making for months, and encouraged Africk to adopt the Magistrate’s report and recommendations. 

The MacArthur attorneys also wrote that they felt the need to respond to the city’s “perpetuation of the dangerous and false dichotomy that providing adequate care to people in jail stands in the way of providing access to health care for the City’s non-imprisoned residents.” 

The city, in its filing last month, had objected to what they described as the Magistrate’s “inherent conclusion that jail is a means of securing healthcare.”

“That concept is at odds with national correctional practices as well as the City’s efforts to reduce jail population but provide proper care in the appropriate facility,” lawyers for the city wrote. ”An individual should not have to be incarcerated to receive healthcare in the City.”

But the plaintiffs’ attorneys said that the city itself is responsible for the lack of mental healthcare outside of the criminal legal system, and pointed out that while the city has spent significant money on “renovations to Gallier Hall, on increased surveillance cameras, and on new police vehicles,” they had failed to commit “any funding to remedy this severe dearth of community-based mental health treatment.”

“While the people of Orleans wait for investment in community-based mental health care, the reality is that people with mental health needs are still being taken to and kept in jail,” the attorneys wrote. “This case is only about the constitutional obligations to provide safe housing and adequate and appropriate healthcare to those people who have been imprisoned in the City’s jail.”

Meanwhile, following North’s recommendation, the city confirmed in a separate filing that it is “taking immediate steps to further engage the Architect in the completion of design work” on Phase III, which it said is now 75 percent complete.

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...