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

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement will hold a public meeting next week to discuss plans to build a controversial, 89-bed facility at the city’s jail to treat detainees with serious mental health and medical issues. The meeting will take place on Thursday, April 21 at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. It also will be televised on local access TV on Cox cable, channel 6.

According to a Thursday press release from the city, the meeting is being held as part of a FEMA-mandated review process. The federal agency has pledged tens of millions of dollars in post-Katrina disaster funds, which city officials say will cover most, but not all, of the expected $50-million-plus construction cost. Construction of the building has not yet begun, and the Cantrell administration has recently claimed that FEMA’s demands have caused delays. 

For nearly two years, Cantrell has been fighting in federal court to avoid building the facility, known as Phase III. The city previously agreed to build the facility — in court negotiations over the jail’s long-running federal consent decree — during former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.  And for the first two years of Cantrell’s first term, it seemed as though the city was moving forward on the project, providing regular updates to the federal judge presiding over the consent decree. But in June 2020, the city abruptly stopped work on the facility, arguing that it was unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars. 

Outgoing Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has backed construction of Phase III for over a decade, previously lobbying City Hall for a far larger facility on the jail’s campus. 

But criminal justice reform organizations — most notably, perhaps, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition — have actively opposed the facility, or any expansion of the jail’s size or footprint. They argue that a portion of the current jail can be retrofitted to accommodate the medical and mental health needs of detainees, and the city should instead invest in community mental health resources outside of the jail. Orleans Parish Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson — the city’s former Independent Police Monitor, who last year overcame Gusman’s bid for a fifth term in office — also made her opposition to the facility a key part of her campaign platform. Hutson will take office next month. 

But for now, the Sheriff’s Office under Gusman remains supportive of the building. And the other parties to the 2013 consent decree  — the United States Department of Justice and civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated at the jail —  have also come out in favor, leaving the city as the only party to the litigation that is opposed. 

The DOJ, Sheriff’s Office and the detainees’ attorneys argue that the city can’t be allowed to go back on its earlier agreement, and that the building is required in order to provide constitutional mental and medical health care for people in custody in New Orleans. The current jail, they say, lacks the infrastructure to do so because it does not have enough room to accommodate private and group counseling, and too few suicide-resistant cells, among other issues.

After an extended hearing on the issue in late 2020, federal judge Lance Africk ordered the city to move forward with the project. The city has appealed that decision, and is now waiting on a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. 

But in the meantime, the city has been ordered to move forward with construction, and a federal magistrate judge handling the issue, Michael North, has become increasingly frustrated with delays in the projected timeline for completion. 

City officials have recently told North that one of the reasons for the delays was due to FEMA requiring them to get more public input as part of an environmental assessment report. But North and the other parties have been skeptical of that claim, saying the city has yet to provide any evidence that shows FEMA is in fact requiring it. And at a hearing last week, North threatened to hold the city in contempt of court if they did not complete the report for FEMA by May 13. 

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...