(La'Shance Perry/The Lens) Credit: La'Shance Perry / Government & Politics - The Lens

On Monday, a New Orleans judge temporarily blocked construction on a controversial “special needs” jail facility known as Phase III.

Work will be halted until after a Wednesday hearing into whether Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration violated the city’s charter by allocating $32 million for the facility without the approval of the City Council. 

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ethel Julien granted a temporary restraining order to Voice of the Experienced, an advocacy organization that sued the city in September, and has long opposed the construction of the 89-bed Phase III.

The Phase III facility has been opposed by most elected officials in the city — including Cantrell and Sheriff Susan Hutson, who oversees the city’s jail. Its construction was ordered four years ago by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who has consistently ruled that the new facility necessary to provide adequate mental healthcare to people locked up in the facility.

Africk oversees the jail’s long-running consent decree, meant to bring the troubled facility up to constitutional standards.

Back in 2019, Africk, along with U.S. Magistrate Michael North, ruled that the city must move forward with construction of Phase III. City officials responded by dragging their heels. During the ensuing years of delay, costs have ballooned. The City Council asked for an independent audit of the cost increases.

But Africk and North held fast, warning that any further delays will be met with contempt of court charges. 

Faced with that threat, the mayor’s office allocated an additional $32 million in Phase III funding in August, sidestepping the procedure mandated by the City Charter, which requires that the City Council approve an ordinance for any changes made to the city’s capital budget. 

In its lawsuit, VOTE argued that the mayor’s allocation violated city law and undermined the rights of its members “to participate in the City’s democratic process.” 

Construction status unclear

It is unclear whether construction has already started on the facility. Outside the jail, some heavy equipment is already staged in a way that makes construction look imminent.

“Without our move, pile-driving was supposed to begin on Monday,” said Bruce Reilly, VOTE’s deputy director. 

The city issued a notice to proceed on September 20, to McDonnel Group, the construction contractor. 

The company began staging for work outside the jail on October 2. But in mid-October, Sheriff Hutson told The Lens that the contractors had not formally begun work. 

Representatives with the Sheriff’s Office and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling – and whether construction has formally begun.

As construction became imminent, VOTE applied for a temporary restraining order, paying a $50,000 bond on Monday morning – the group could lose that money in whole or in part, if Julien rules that the TRO should not have been granted or if it’s determined that the city lost money during the delay. 

“We feel like it’s that important. We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Reilly said.

It’s also unclear what comes next – and how the construction timeline will be affected – if Julien rules that the $32 million was improperly allocated and the city is forced to go back to the City Council for approval. 

On Monday morning, after Sheriff Hutson presented her costs and revenues for next year in a City Council budget hearing, VOTE executive director Norris Henderson stepped to the podium and expressed frustration with the Council for failing to ask questions about the funding allocation.

“We had to put up a $50,000 bond this morning for a temporary restraining order to stop the construction on that jail,” Henderson said. “That shouldn’t be in our wheelhouse. That’s your job. That’s not ours.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story included a line indicating that there had been no prior orders halting construction of Phase III. In fact, an short administrative stay was previously issued in September.

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...