Rather than risk being held in contempt of federal court, it appears that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has bypassed City Council approval and reallocated $32 million dollars from its capital budget for a controversial “special needs” jail facility known as Phase III.

Both Cantrell and Sheriff Susan Hutson oppose constructing Phase III. 

Despite heated discussions and legal roadblocks, there’s been no wavering by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the jail’s long-running consent decree and has long maintained that Phase III must be built to bring the jail’s mental-healthcare up to constitutional standards.

The City Council, whose members have frequently spoken out against the facility, recently passed a resolution urging a third-party audit of ballooning construction costs. Council President J.P. Morrell went even farther, saying that without an audit he would not be inclined to vote in favor of funding Phase III construction. 

Now, it appears that Morrell will not get the opportunity to weigh in at all. 

Even just a few weeks ago, the city held the position that any funding allocation for the facility, known as Phase III, would first need to be approved by the council. 

But the need for council approval seemed to shift after a federal court hearing last week, when City Attorney Donesia Turner informed the court that the city would issue a notice to proceed with construction by September 15. Shortly after the hearing, the city filed a status report with the court, noting that the administration had allocated the $32 million in funding effective August 17 — despite no action being taken by the Council.

At least one Councilmember — Joe Giarrusso — has said he believes that there is no need for council approval, given the court order issued at the hearing, stating that the city can’t afford to be held in contempt of court and face “significant fines,” particularly given the increased price tag of the facility. 

At the hearing last week, federal Magistrate Judge Michael North, who has been handling Phase III matters for Africk, told the parties he had reached a “critical max” of frustration with delays to the project. 

For several years, the city estimated the facility would cost $51 million. That estimate has now increased to around $109 million — including an $89 million construction contract with the Metarie-based McDonnel Construction Services, which the city entered into earlier this year.

The decision to sidestep council approval is likely to draw ire from opponents of the facility, who have urged everyone involved to do everything in their power to block construction.

When the council put a cooperative endeavor agreement on its agenda without first hearing it at the committee level, Hutson argued that the project was being “fast tracked without proper adherence to our laws or desired principles of transparency and good government practices.” 

According to a list obtained by The Lens, the city had planned to move $21 million from various projects — including building maintenance, energy efficiency upgrades, and parks and playgrounds. But it was not immediately clear if money was reallocated from that exact list of projects or where the additional $11 million in funding came from.

Phase III design: “Glass hellscape” or forward-thinking “model”?

The notorious panoptican unit at the old Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois. Phase III critics have compared the mental-health facility’s circular design to Stateville’s notorious F-house.

In recent weeks, the design of Phase III has also come under attack by jail opponents, including the sheriff, advocates and other city officials, who have criticized it as an inhumane “panopticon.” 

Last week, architects responded, defending their design, both in federal court and in writing. 

Critics had argued that the circular design would force jailed detainees with acute mental illness to constantly observe one another throughout the day, exacerbating mental-health conditions and bullying. 

Dr. James Austin, a consultant who has worked on jail reduction efforts for the city, criticized the design’s circular layout, the number of two-bed cells, and the lighting in July before the council’s criminal-justice committee. “A glass hellscape,” said Morrell, summarizing the presentation.

Austin also derided double-bunking in Phase II, saying that it was inappropriate for people with serious mental illness.

Those criticisms are unwarranted, said Jerry Hebert, the project architect, and Vince Smith, the city’s director of capital projects, who noted that the criticisms are partly based on outdated “schematic design” renderings, created during early stages of the design, which showed cells with full-glass front walls.   

Last week in federal court, Hebert presented newer renderings showing cells with solid doors and narrow glass windows. Projections, showing views from inside the cells, appeared to show much less clear sightlines, making it relatively difficult to see across the pod, into pods on the opposite wall. 

Hebert said that the actual designs were accurately represented last week in  the renderings presented to the court, which “were based on the final project design as building materials, and building systems were identified and as the documents reflected the necessary details and specifications required for construction.”  

According to defenders of the facility, Phase III was designed with input from a number of city officials and mental-health professionals, including the mental-health consent-decree monitors and psychiatrists from Tulane University School of Medicine who work at the jail under contract with the jail’s healthcare provider, Wellpath.

At the hearing last week, people who were part of that process testified before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael North. “I was honestly shocked to see this design described as a panopticon,” testified Dr. Raymond Patterson, a forensic psychiatrist who served as the mental-health monitor within the consent-decree process.  

Patterson said that the design — despite having a circular pod structure with a nursing and security station in the middle —  was a far cry from circular panopticon prison buildings like the notorious and now-closed F-House at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. 

Patterson, who had worked at Stateville, explained some of the key differences. While the Stateville tower was surrounded by hundreds of barred cells on four floors, the Phase III housing units would be set on a single floor. And while the guard tower in some panopticons is meant to obscure the guards from view and give the impression of constant surveillance, the Phase III design allowed staff to directly observe and supervise detainees who are at higher-risk for self harm, in a way that was more like a hospital’s ICU unit than a panopticon prison. 

Patterson even saw some elements of the design as innovative in a humanitarian way, including sub-pod dayrooms where detainees can be out of their cells in smaller groups. That “could become, if managed properly, a model,” Patterson said.

Putting two people in a cell is also sometimes appropriate, said Patterson, arguing that such a decision would be based on a clinical determination by a treatment team.

In his letter, Hebert said it was the Tulane psychiatrists who requested the double bed cells “for the flexibility they offered.”

A sheriff’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the updated renderings. 

But in a phone call on Monday with The Lens, Austin acknowledged some progress. The new renderings showed that there was “more blockage on line-of-sight than there was before,” he said, though – for him – the circular design still qualified Phase III as a panopticon.

The double-celling also continued to be a “major issue” for Austin. “I don’t know of any mental-health unit that has acute mentally ill patients in it that is not single-celled,” he said. 

Correction: Due to a typographical error, an earlier version of this story stated that the city appeared to reallocate $31 million for Phase III. The correct number is $32 million. (September 1, 2023)

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...