New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, center, is pushing for a study of a jail retrofit rather than the Phase III addition. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

Former New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson told The Lens on Wednesday that she is opposed to a proposed new city jail facility, called Phase III, that the city has been ordered to build to house detainees with serious mental illness or medical needs.

Hutson, who resigned from the public, independent watchdog agency last month after over a decade, is seeking to take over the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, from incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman. She qualified for the October election on Wednesday.

Hutson appeared outside of the New Orleans jail on Wednesday afternoon, along with New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer and criminal justice reform advocates with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and the Vera Institute for Justice, in a press conference to oppose Phase III. 

“My position is I’m against Phase III, and I want to oppose it,” Hutson told The Lens. Her opponent, Gusman, has long argued in favor of the 89-bed addition, which is expected to cost more than $50 million, most of which will be paid with post-Katrina federal dollars. 

The press conference came ahead of a City Council meeting on Thursday during which the council will consider a resolution, sponsored by Palmer, that would signal their support for an alternative to Phase III — a retrofit of the current jail to provide accommodation for people with serious mental illness. Palmer is also putting forward a motion, along with Councilman Jay Banks, that will instruct the City Planning Commission to consider the possibility of retrofitting the current jail. 

“We all know we have a problem with violent crime in our city,” Palmer said at the press conference. “But despite what we’re being told by the federal court, building a new mental health facility at this jail will not solve that problem.”

The press conference also comes not long after a federal judge overseeing the jail’s long-running federal consent decree, meant to bring the historically troubled jail into compliance with constitutional standards, ordered that the city move forward with the construction of the facility, despite opposition from Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Cantrell’s administration has also pushed for a retrofit of the current jail to accommodate detainees with medical and mental health needs, rather than an addition. The order is currently being appealed. 

The parties arguing in favor of the new facility — including the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the United States Department of Justice, and civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated in the jail — argue that a new facility is necessary to provide adequate care for people with mental illness, and that a retrofit is not feasible. 

Attorneys for the city have argued in federal court recently that the City Council would need to approve a zoning measure before they are able to move forward with construction of the new facility. But it is unclear what would happen if the council refuses to approve that measure, given the court order. When the issue was before the council back in 2017, then-City Attorney Rebecca Dietz warned the members that they risked being held in contempt of court if they did not instruct the City Planning Commission to consider the Phase III plan. 

The City Council at the time did vote in favor of instructing the Planning Commission to consider Phase III, but the city never submitted those plans to the commission. 

Palmer said that she has considered the possibility that she and the rest of the council may be held in contempt, and has discussed the issue with the City Attorney’s Office and been briefed by the federal judges presiding over the consent decree. But she maintains her opposition to the facility. 

“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a question of whether mental health needs at the jail will be met,” Palmer said. “The retrofit option, which is making use of our existing jail is the fastest, most responsible way of achieving that.” 

Will Snowden, with the Vera Institute, said that with the federal money the city is receiving from the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress earlier this year, they can afford to invest in mental health care services outside of the jail. 

“For the first time in the history of this conversation about Phase III of the jail, we have new access to federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan, to support the infrastructure on a continuum of care to provide the necessary mental health services and substance use treatment we need in the community.

Hutson told The Lens that if elected, she would attempt to work out an agreement with the other parties in the litigation to make a retrofit work.

“If you have the sheriff now say, ‘No, I want to reconsider this position’ and sit down and talk with the city, sit down and talk with the Department of Justice, and the plaintiffs in the litigation, and see if we could come to some kind of understanding, there’s plenty of room in this jail, that’s currently operating, with a retrofit,” she said. 

Sheriff Gusman also made an appearance outside the jail on Wednesday, telling reporters that the new facility was necessary to provide adequate medical and mental health care in the jail.

“So look, this is not an expansion,” Gusman said. “It’s about special needs. It’s funded. This is an agreement that was agreed to back in June of 2016. It’s been litigated in court.”

Nicholas 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...