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

The staff of the New Orleans City Planning Commission has recommended the approval of zoning changes that would allow for the construction of a controversial New Orleans jail facility, known as Phase III, that would house detainees with acute mental health needs.  

Planning staffers didn’t endorse the proposal as a criminal-justice policy, strictly evaluating it as a land-use issue matter, the report says. The commission will take a non-binding vote on the matter next week. Ultimately, the decision will be left up to the New Orleans City Council to approve or deny the changes. 

The 89-bed facility — planned for a vacant patch of land between the current jail building and the jail’s kitchen/warehouse facility —  is the subject of a legal dispute in federal court, as part of ongoing proceedings in the jail’s 8-year-old federal consent decree.

Though the jail is run by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the city of New Orleans will be responsible for construction of Phase III should it move forward. But New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration contends the new building is unnecessary, and with a budget of more than $50 million — less than $40 million of which would come from post-Katrina FEMA funding, while the city would pay the remainder — too expensive. The city prefers an alternative, such as a retrofit of part of the existing jail building, to serve as a medical and mental health unit. 

Many criminal criminal justice reform organizations have long opposed any expansion of the jail’s footprint beyond the 1,438-bed main building approved by the council in 2011 and opened in 2015 as the Orleans Justice Center. The groups have often argued that the city should invest in mental health care outside of the jail. Two organizations, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and Voice of the Experienced, are planning a mock jazz funeral for Phase III on Saturday to urge the Planning Commission to vote against the proposed building.

But federal Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the consent decree litigation, in January ordered the city to honor legal agreements — made by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and Cantrell administration — to build the facility. The city has appealed that order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which has yet to issue a ruling. 

After initially agreeing to build Phase III in 2017 during Landrieu’s tenure, the city government under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration went forward with planning the construction of the facility for over a year in 2019 and early 2020. The city provided regular updates to Africk and the other parties to the consent decree on its progress with pre-construction work. 

But in June 2020, the city abruptly halted work on the facility, arguing to the court that it was a waste of money. While the majority of the cost would be covered by FEMA funds, the city argued that anticipated tax revenue shortfalls from COVID-related business closures and a slump in tourism, along with a declining jail population and improved mental health care at the current jail meant they shouldn’t have to build Phase III.

But the other parties to the consent decree — including the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights attorneys representing the plaintiffs’ class of jail detainees — came out in support of the facility. They have argued that the consent decree requires the jail to safely house all types of detainees. That includes those with acute mental health and medical needs, which neither the 2011 city zoning ordinance nor the design of OJC — the current jail building — accounted for. 

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman also supports Phase III, having previously argued for a far larger new building on the jail’s campus

In a report released Friday, monitors appointed by the court to track the jail’s progress in complying with the terms of the consent decree called Phase III “critical to the provision of mental and medical health services in accordance with the Consent Judgment.”  

The report also says that the jail has regressed in its compliance since the last report, which was released in February, “due to a failure to follow the policies and procedures that have been put in place.”  

But in a statement, Gusman called the monitors’ position on Phase III “the most important takeaway from the report.”  

“We need to complete Phase III,” he said. “Some people are trying to make this a political issue, it’s not. It’s a human issue. To provide the necessary level of care, custody and control of the Orleans Justice Center population, we need a dedicated mental health facility.”

‘Staff recognizes the legitimate concerns’ 

Africk was first made aware of OJC’s design shortcomings in 2013, shortly before he signed an order approving the consent decree. The following year, Gusman reached an agreement with the state to house detainees with acute care needs at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. The state later decided to end the agreement, forcing the Sheriff’s Office and the city to seek both temporary and permanent housing solutions. 

In 2019, the planning commission staff recommended approval of zoning changes that allowed for the renovation of another jail facility — the Temporary Detention Center — as a stop-gap measure to house detainees with mental illness until a more permanent solution was found. The commission, however, unanimously voted against the measure.

Still, the City Council ultimately passed it, with the condition that the number of detainees at the jail be capped at 1,250. That replaced the previous bed cap of 1,438. (Currently there are 876 people in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office, according to data available on the City Council website.)

In the new City Planning Commission staff report, released this week, planners said that their decision was not an endorsement of the facility as a policy matter, but that they determined it was appropriate from “a land use perspective” and “would not result in significant new impacts or an intensification of the current use.”

“Staff recognizes the legitimate concerns surrounding the merits of this application—including incarceration of individuals with mental health conditions, the $51 million price tag (only $39 million of which would be covered by FEMA funds), and what is allowable under the federal consent decree,” the report reads. “That said, the City Planning Commission’s role is narrowly focused on assessing a proposed development’s impact in terms of the type of activity they generate; when, where, and how this activity occurs; vehicular traffic and parking impacts; noise impacts; environmental impacts; and aesthetic impacts.”

The commission is also considering a separate proposal for a jail retrofit, the alternative favored by the city, which the report says “will be considered at a subsequent City Planning Commission meeting.” 

“Ultimately, City Council must consider how each proposal aligns with its policy agenda,” the report reads.

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...