Advocates opposed to Phase III of the New Orleans jail hold up signs at a City Council meeting on Thursday, July 15. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution on Thursday voicing their opposition to a controversial new jail facility known as Phase III, and instead signaling support for a retrofit of the current jail building to provide space to house people with serious mental illness incarcerated there.  

“The reduction in jail population here reflects a broader nationwide trend,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said. “Why would we continue to build a new mental health facility at the jail, which the Sheriff tells us will cost the city at least $8 million a year to operate?  Best case scenario the facility sits empty. Worst case, if you build it, they will come, and our city will take a huge step backwards in terms of over incarceration.”

Many criminal justice reform advocates applauded the move. The resolution is in opposition to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk earlier this year, ordering the city to move forward with the construction of the 89-bed, $51 million facility. The ruling came as part of the long-running federal consent decree meant to bring the jail — notorious for violence and poor inmate care — into compliance with constitutional standards. The Mayor’s Office, under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, had previously agreed to build the Phase III facility in 2017. 

Those arguing in favor of Phase III — including civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated at the jail in the consent decree case — have argued it is necessary for providing adequate mental health care for people incarcerated in the city’s jail. Structural deficiencies in the current jail — such as lack of counseling space, line of sight issues, and a mezzanine that could be conducive to detainees harming themselves — would be difficult to address with a retrofit, they have argued.

Magistrate Judge Michael North, who presided over a week of hearings on a motion by the city to get out of building Phase III, during which they presented a plan for a retrofit, called it “not a viable option in any way, shape, or form.”

But while the council resolution specifically supports a retrofit, a number of council members appealed directly to the federal court to allow the parties to come together to discuss other alternatives to Phase III — not necessarily just a retrofit. 

“I’ll definitely be supporting this resolution as well,” Council President Helena Moreno said at the meeting. “My big ask though, is to the court, and I would just ask the court to give us another shot. Give us a shot to look at alternatives. To bring all parties together before the court and agree on a new alternative — one that will meet the needs of the mental health population, but also take into account the now very different circumstances.”

The resolution requests that the City Attorney’s Office and the civil rights lawyers representing the consent-decree plaintiff class “meet, in a forum convened by a mediator, to consider the viability of addressing the needs of the acute and sub-acute mentally ill population through any iteration of a retrofit of the current jail buildings, including the Temporary Detention Center.” 

The Temporary Detention Center, another jail facility, was recently renovated by the city, and is currently being used to house detainees with serious mental illness. But that was only meant to be a stopgap measure until a more permanent solution was agreed upon. 

Dozens of people showed up at the Thursday council meeting to voice support for the resolution and their opposition to Phase III. In addition, according to Palmer, there were 76 public comments submitted online in favor of the resolution.

Attorneys for the city have argued that they first need to get zoning approval from the City Council before it can start construction on Phase III. That vote would occur following a recommendation by the City Planning Commission. According to a recent court filing by the city, the commission will conduct a public hearing on the facility in August. 

Palmer and Councilman Jay Banks also put forward a motion instructing the City Planning Commission to consider the possibility of retrofitting the current jail, which will be considered by the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. 

It is unclear what will happen if the council ultimately refuses to approve the zoning ordinance for Phase III, which the resolution suggests they may not, given the court’s order. When the issue came before the council in 2017, the city attorney at the time, Rebecca Dietz, suggested that the council could be held in contempt of court if they did not move forward with Phase III, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu had agreed to build based on a plan developed by then-jail Compliance Director Gary Maynard. 

The council ultimately passed the motion instructing the planning commission to consider Phase III, but the city did not present those plans to the commission until just recently. 

Attorneys with the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, who represent the plaintiffs in the consent decree litigation, did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published.

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...