From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

With the city receiving just a single bid — at a significantly higher price than anticipated — for the construction of a controversial new “special needs” jail building, advocates and officials are renewing their calls for alternatives to the proposed 89-bed facility, arguing that the millions of dollars in tax-payer money could be better utilized. 

Civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated at the  jail, along with the U.S. Department of Justice and federal court appointed jail monitors, argue that the new facility — known as Phase III — is necessary to provide constitutional care to people with serious mental illness who are locked up awaiting trial in New Orleans. But there has been persistent opposition from community groups who oppose any expansion of the jail and argue that the city should instead invest in providing mental health care in the community.

While Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration initially agreed to move forward with construction of Phase III as part of the jail’s long-running federal consent decree litigation, in the summer of 2020 they abruptly reversed course, echoing the concerns of advocates who said that the facility was unnecessary and too expensive. And Sheriff Susan Hutson, who was elected in December of 2021 and took office in May of last year, campaigned on her opposition to the facility. 

But a federal judge has ordered them to move forward, despite their objections, saying that a proposed retrofit of the current jail was not viable and would not provide the same level of care as a new facility. 

Now, with the city reluctantly abiding by that order, the process of securing a contractor to actually build the facility is again providing an opportunity for opponents of Phase III to voice their displeasure at money being spent on more jail beds. And, it is almost certain to cause further delays in a project that has already been repeatedly pushed back. 

For several years, the city estimated the cost of the building would be $51 million, with Federal Emergency Management Administration funds covering $36 million. More recently they bumped that number up to $71 million. But following a multi-week open call for proposals, the single bid for the project came in last month at $89 million. 

The city won’t be moving forward with the bid, however. A spokesperson said it will have to rebid Phase III due to federal regulations that require a two bid minimum for projects that utilize FEMA funds. He said that they are currently conducting “post bid analysis” with the project architect, after which “adjustments will be made to the plans (if required), and the plans will be re-submitted to the City’s Purchasing Department for re-bidding.” They are hoping to have a plan for moving foward by the end of next week. 

Will Snowden, with the Vera Institute of Justice, which has long opposed Phase III, said that the higher-than-anticipated bid should force city officials, the judge, and the other parties in the consent decree to come together to rethink the project and mental health care in the city as a whole. 

“The ballooning budget for the Phase III facility is going to require New Orleans to not only to re- evaluate how to provide necessary care and humane confinement conditions for people in the Sheriff’s custody, but will also have to invest in a continuum of mental health care in our community,” he said. 

In a statement, Sheriff Hutson said that she remains “committed to following the courts direction on this” and stands “ready to hear from the city on the plans to move forward to solutions.”  But last week she told The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that she too hopes that U.S. Federal Judge Lance Africk, who presides over the consent decree litigation, will sit down with the other parties to reconsider the project. 

The higher price tag, however, is unlikely to move the court. In prior hearings, Magistrate Judge Michael North, who has been handling the issue for Africk, has said that the delays leading to the increased price tag were caused by the city when they attempted to get out of building the facility, and they would be on the hook for whatever the facility ends up costing. (Construction costs have increased dramatically in recent years, due in part to higher costs of materials and greater demand following the shut downs caused by COVID-19.)

“The City is warned in the strongest possible terms that the Court will not tolerate any more delays in this process that are caused by the City,” North wrote in an order last year. “This includes, but is not limited to, any suggested delays the City might later suggest are warranted by its inability (or unwillingness) to allocate funding to cover the ‘gap’ between the FEMA funds that the City chooses to allocate to Phase III and the actual cost of construction of that project.”

He has even gone so far as to threaten officials with contempt of court — which could result in fines or jail time — if there are unnecessary delays in the project.

So far, the city has reallocated over $26 million for the project from other planned capital investments — including money for an emergency operations center, public libraries, and a recreation center. But depending on how the procurement process plays out, it appears likely that they will need to identify even more. 

The single bid the city did receive for Phase III came from Metairie-based construction company The McDonnel Group. But at least one other company — Gibbs Construction in New Orleans — expressed interest in the project, and the City even extended the deadline for submissions at their request, according to court documents. But Gibbs didn’t ultimately submit a bid. The city said it was not aware of the reason.

According to OPSO, there are currently 30 people with acute mental illness incarcerated in the jail who would be served by the construction of the 89-bed Phase III, which will also include an infirmary, programming and counseling space, laundry, and expanded visitation areas.

Snowden, with Vera, said that if the city invests in more wrap-around services in the community, that number could drop even further. Vera has previously advocated for the City using one-time federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to construct a 100-bed mental health “community solutions center” that would provide several tiers of service for people experiencing or who have experienced a mental health crisis.

“It’s somewhat of a jail population reduction tactic,” Snowden said. “Because the jail and our emergency rooms unfortunately become the de facto place where people who are in a mental health crisis get taken.”

The city did not respond to questions regarding whether or not they are considering using any one-time ARPA funds for mental health care infrastructure outside of the jail, nor if they would consider allocating any of it to cover the costs of Phase III.

Snowden said he hoped the other parties in the consent decree litigation would see the “sticker shock” of the Phase III bid as an “opportunity to have different conversations than they’ve had in the past.” 

“Because it just doesn’t make sense to spend this much money on a facility that is really an investment that should be made on the front end to prevent people from being brought to the jail in the first place.” 

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...