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

A federal magistrate judge is demanding answers from anyone who has them related to what he says are ongoing discussions about a proposed alternative to building a controversial new facility at the New Orleans jail. 

In a Tuesday order, a clearly frustrated Judge Michael North, who presided over a lengthy 2020 court hearing over the facility — a medical and mental health unit known as Phase III — wrote that he has become aware of recent meetings about a proposed alternative favored by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson: retrofitting the existing jail building to accommodate jail detainees with acute care needs. 

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the jail’s long-running federal consent decree, rejected the retrofit as inadequate to provide necessary care. In light of Africk’s decision — which the city unsuccessfully appealed — North is demanding answers about the meetings, including whether the city or the Sheriff’s Office is involved. 

“For what should be obvious reasons at this point, the Court is more concerned about why such meetings continue, when it should be clear to anyone paying attention to this case that retrofitting OJC to address the pressing issue of medical and mental-health care will not happen,” North wrote in the Tuesday order

He scheduled a status conference later this month “to hear from the party or parties responsible for these retrofit meetings.” 

‘Such meetings have, in fact, taken place’

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu agreed to build the proposed 89-bed facility late in his second term, pursuant to a settlement the city and other parties reached in the consent decree litigation. By the time Landrieu left office, however, little had been done. 

Cantrell, who opposed Phase III as a City Council member, took over the Mayor’s Office in 2018 and reluctantly started planning work on the facility the following year. But in June 2020, her administration abruptly halted work on the facility, and filed a motion in federal court alleging that it was a waste of taxpayer money, and not necessary to provide adequate medical and mental health care. Instead, the city said that they could renovate a floor of the current jail in order to accommodate detainees with serious mental health needs. 

The other parties in the long-running consent decree — including then-Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the United States Department of Justice, and civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated in the jail —  disagreed, and filed opposing motions. They said that the physical infrastructure of the main jail would not be conducive to the types of care that must be provided to people in the facility. 

The parties convened for a lengthy hearing on the issue — with North presiding — in late 2020. North recommended forcing the city to stick to Landrieu’s agreement. Africk, who had final say, agreed. That decision was upheld in late June by a panel of judges for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

At a status conference a month later, the city’s director of capital projects, Vincent Smith, told North that he was not aware of any ongoing meetings to discuss a retrofit, according to the Tuesday order. 

“Mr. Smith denied any such meetings had taken place, and the Court believes that Mr. Smith believed that answer to be true at the time,” North wrote. 

But now, the court appears to have information that meetings related to the retrofit are continuing to take place.  North said he “is aware that such meetings have, in fact, taken place,” despite Smith’s denial. 

‘Who is paying Dr. Austin to participate in the meetings?’

North appears to have very limited information related to the meetings — including who organized them, where or when they took place, and who participated other than Dr. James Austin, a jail expert and longtime consultant for the city of New Orleans.

Austin has worked with the city off-and-on for over a decade. In 2010, he consulted for a working group, organized by the Landrieu administration, that developed the plans for the current jail — the Orleans Justice Center — which replaced the sprawling Orleans Parish Prison complex. He continued working for the city after plans were approved for the OJC, studying jail population patterns to determine if another facility would be necessary. And he later helped develop plans for the retrofit alternative. When North held a hearing on the city’s motion to get out of building Phase III in October of 2020, Austin testified as an expert witness for the city.

But now, according to North’s order, he is contracted with the project management company overseeing the Phase III project — Hill International. It is unclear what Austin’s role at Hill is, and he could not immediately be reached for comment. 

But North says he suspects that, in participating in retrofit meetings, Austin is now working for someone other than Hill or the City, and suggested the possibility that it could be Hutson, who ran for office on her opposition to the Phase III facility and, as sheriff-elect, was allowed to participate in the city’s appeal earlier this year. Hutson took over the office from former Sheriff Marlin Gusman in May. 

“As Hill has no connection at all to any past proposals concerning a retrofit, the Court must conclude that Dr. Austin is participating in such meetings on behalf of some person or entity other than Hill or the City of New Orleans,” North wrote. “Is the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office the party responsible for conducting these meetings? If not, who is? … Who directed Dr. Austin, the City’s expert, to participate in the meetings? Who is paying Dr. Austin to participate in the meetings?”

The city and the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. 

North raised concerns that despite the court orders, city officials or the Sheriff’s Office could still be trying to find a way to push forward the retrofit option. He has previously warned that any unnecessary delays in the Phase III project could lead to potential contempt charges.

“Does any party intend to present to the Court (or to anyone else, including the general public) another report, recommendation, suggestion, or proposal to retrofit OJC in lieu of constructing Phase III?“ North wrote. 

North scheduled the status conference for Aug. 18 at 1 p.m. and said he “expects every individual who can answer one or more of these questions, including Dr. Austin, to personally attend” and be “prepared to respond to these and related inquiries under oath.”

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...