Sheriff Susan Hutson joins advocates in front of City Hall to oppose Phase III of the New Orleans jail. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

On Tuesday morning, as contractors near the city jail on Perdido Street staged an area for Phase III construction, Sheriff Susan Hutson joined advocates outside City Hall to oppose that construction.

“Your platform is my platform,” Hutson said at the rally, which was organized by the advocacy organization Voice Of The Experienced (VOTE). Protestors walked from City Hall to the federal district courthouse on Poydras Avenue, while speakers urged the city to move away from Phase III construction and instead invest money in mental healthcare and other community resources outside of the jail.

The construction of Phase III, a jail annex for people with acute mental-health needs, was long ago ordered to move forward by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk. It now seems almost inevitable. Every branch of the city has tried to stop it. In 2020, Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s administration unsuccessfully moved to get out of building it. Over and over, the City Council has expressed their opposition to the facility.

The sheriff also has continued her fight.

“What did we say on day one – no Phase III,” Hutson told the crowd, referring to her 2021 campaign for sheriff, when opposition to Phase III was an integral part of her platform. 

Meanwhile, last week, a report found that conditions at the jail had once again regressed under Hutson’s tenure, according to monitors of the jail’s long-running federal consent decree. To bring the jail into compliance, Phase III is “an important part of the long-term solution,” the monitors wrote. It’s a sentiment that the monitors have expressed before, even as the city’s officials have tried to combat and even circumvent Africk’s order.

Hutson clearly doesn’t share that perspective. Recently, in June, she filed a motion in federal court arguing that Africk, who oversees the jail’s long-running consent decree, did not have authority to order the parties to move forward with the facility’s construction.  

“I’m fighting in the courts, and I’m going to keep fighting in the courts until I can’t no more,” Hutson said on Tuesday in front of City Hall.

Though Africk rejected Hutson’s legal arguments last month, Hutson has appealed the ruling. Construction must move forward as litigation plays out, a panel of 5th Circuit judges ruled. 

In September, the group VOTE filed suit against the city, also with hopes of throwing a monkey wrench into the works, to block the construction of Phase III. VOTE claims that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration violated the city’s charter when it allocated over $30 million for the construction without first receiving City Council approval. 

“The Mayor has moved money that had been appropriated for something else, to go to this jail — when she said she didn’t want the jail,” Norris Henderson, executive director of VOTE, said at the rally. “The Sheriff said she didn’t want the jail. The City Council said they didn’t want the jail. So why are we here? Because a federal judge is saying, ‘Y’all have to build a jail.’”

Monitors find ’emboldened’ inmates on top of short staff, mental-health woes

The most recent jail monitor’s report, released on October 6, describes escalating violence, a steady flow of contraband, and a general sense of chaos in the facility. The report is based on a review of documents and incidents between October 1, 2022, and March 31, 2023, along with visits to the jail over the summer.

While a previous report covered the initial months of Hutson’s term, this report is the first for a time period when only Hutson was in charge. 

Like the previous report, the number of provisions in “substantial compliance” — meeting consent-decree standards — slid down further. It’s now at a low it hadn’t hit since January 2019.

Though some of the findings are new, with amplified violence, many of the findings can be tied to two chronic issues – short-staffing and shoddy mental-health care – that have plagued Hutson during her tenure, just as they plagued her predecessor, Marlin Gusman. 

“The inmates appear to be emboldened in their refusal to follow the rules and obey the orders of the security staff,” monitors wrote. “Very concerning is that both staff and inmates relayed to the monitors that there are inmates who are acting as ‘tank bosses’ and are extorting other inmates and requiring payment for protection.” 

Understaffing played a key role – “most often, the inmate-on-inmate assaults occurred when there was no deputy stationed in the housing unit” – and staffing was spread even thinner by OPSO details, which took up staff time for outside, non-jail gigs, concluded the monitors, who suggested that the sheriff’s office would be better off  mandating overtime for employees rather than allowing them to work private details.

A lack of integration with mental-health staff also contributed, monitors found, since deputies “seldom” use mental-health staff to help de-escalate situations before they use excessive force, “even though a large percentage of the inmates involved in uses of force are on the mental health caseload,” monitors wrote. 

On a positive note, monitors praised the mental-health care that Tulane psychiatrists provided at the designated Temporary Mental-Health facility, known as TMH. But TMH has a waitlist, and before they are transferred to TMH, monitors found, the care they receive in the jail is substandard — lacking treatment plans, group and individual therapy, or adequate assessments by mental health professionals.

Again, staffing played a role. Currently, security staff escorts psychiatrists onto tiers to interview inmates. But Tulane psychiatrists told monitors that when staffing was tight, sometimes they weren’t able to see their patients.

Yet another issue that would be alleviated by the construction of Phase III, the monitors wrote. (In Phase III), psychiatrists and other mental health staff will be able to interview inmates in an environment which is much safer for both staff and inmates.” 

In a statement on the report, Hutson said the findings were attributable to the fact that her administration is still in its early days.

“It is not uncommon for new administrations to experience some level of reorganization in the beginning,” Hutson said, “and I am confident the changes and numbers reflected in this report are reflective of a time of adjustments and restructuring early on in my administration.”

Jail as the default mental-health provider

As the litigation plays out, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office will abide by the court order to facilitate construction of Phase III, said Hutson, in an interview in front of City Hall. 

Still, she remains firm in her opposition. She said that the TMH could be turned into a permanent facility to treat people with acute mental illness in the jail, and believes that the money earmarked for Phase III should go toward community health care outside of the jail, she said. “We need a hospital, resources and diversion centers in the community to keep people from getting into the jail to begin with.” 

Yet, proponents of the new annex say that, despite hours of City Hall arguments against Phase III, no one from the city has ever committed to shift the money slated for Phase III and to an integrated, comprehensive, mental healthcare system outside of the jail.

There is a dire need for investment in community care, said former jail mental-health monitor Raymond Patterson, who sees a particular need for services for young people and for crisis-stabilization centers, where police can bring people in the midst of a behavioral health crisis as an alternative to arrest.

There’s little natural flow between the two pots of money, for community healthcare and correctional care, Patterson said.  But the general public doesn’t understand that. 

“People say, ‘If we don’t spend this over here on those inmates we could spend it on real mental-health programs,’” he said. “I have heard more times than I can count on both hands. I’ve been hearing it for 30 years, and I’ve been hearing it in this city for 10.”

Maybe, in the long run, strong community services could bring down mental-health numbers in the city’s jail, Patterson said. But so far, the community investment hasn’t materialized. So  jail remains the default provider for many people in the community.

“So if you want to have a comprehensive program, then have one,” Patterson said. “If you want to have community services, then have it,” Patterson said.

But you can’t raise the idea of creating mental-health services to the community to oppose the creation of a place that provides care in the jail, he said. “You can’t do it at the expense of people who are already locked up.” 

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...