Judge orders renovations of New Orleans jail to house mentally ill inmates

A federal judge has ordered immediate renovation of a temporary jail building to house inmates with serious mental health issues


Matt Sledge
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge has ordered New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to “immediately” begin work on a $4.5 million to $5 million project to renovate a temporary jail building in the city to house inmates with serious mental health problems.

The directive, issued Monday by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, comes weeks after city officials submitted an ambiguous plan that seemed to leave open the possibility that the mental health inmates could instead be housed in the main jail building following some renovations there.

Africk’s order also came on the same day that his court-appointed monitors released their first positive report on the reforms at the New Orleans jail in years.

In court filings, Cantrell’s administration has bemoaned the cost of renovating the Temporary Detention Center, and the Mayor's Office has not explained how it plans to pay for the project.

The city has also argued that the millions of dollars spent renovating the building as a stopgap will be thrown away when the building is demolished a few years later in favor of a more permanent structure.

Still, Africk said the city must begin work now to fix up the Temporary Detention Center because the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has warned that it cannot hold about 40 male Orleans Parish inmates with mental health problems in a state prison past October.

“There being no feasible alternative presented by the parties, and time being of the essence with respect to what the court considers a dire and exigent situation regarding the housing and treatment of mentally ill prisoners in the custody of Orleans Parish, it is ordered that the city immediately initiate the planning, design, procurement and renovation of the temporary accommodations,” Africk said.

The order followed a meeting Africk held Thursday with city administration officials, the Sheriff’s Office and City Council members Jason Williams, Joe Giarrusso and Helena Moreno, according to a court filing.

Africk said that after “discussions with the court,” the city agreed that it would start renovating the Temporary Detention Center, which is on Perdido Street a few blocks on the lake side of the main jail. The facility would hold about 40 men and 30 women for several years.

The city also promised to embark on building a separate, permanent building immediately adjacent to the main jail to hold inmates with mental health problems, the judge said. The Temporary Detention Center would then be demolished.

Officials have said that FEMA funding would cover the cost of the new building, but the city could be on the hook for the stopgap facility. Although the Sheriff's Office runs the jail, under state law the city is responsible for providing its facilities.

Cantrell was a skeptic of the plan to create a new building when she was a member of the City Council. In 2017, she was the sole council member to vote against sending the building proposal to the City Planning Commission.

Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu had rejected the option of renovating the main jail building, known as the Orleans Justice Center, to house inmates with mental-health issues. Yet Cantrell’s administration appears to have revived the possibility of rehabbing the main jail. The Mayor's Office went so far as submitting a detailed proposal for a rehab to the Sheriff's Office in January.

Advocates at the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, who have pressed officials to end the continued violence and suicides at the jail, have criticized the proposal to build a separate facility, arguing that the Sheriff’s Office should reduce the overall inmate population, freeing up space at the main jail that could be renovated to house inmates with mental problems.

Federal monitors have often telegraphed similar concerns about deaths and attacks in their regular reports to Africk, who oversees the jail's 2013 reform agreement with inmate advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Yet in their report Monday, the monitors said the Sheriff’s Office had made “meaningful and noteworthy improvement” since their last report in August on key indicators like safety, medical and mental health care, and environmental conditions.

The monitors said the jail is now in substantial compliance with 37 percent of the provisions in the reform pact, up from 24 percent in August.

Those improvements have come under the stewardship of Darnley Hodge Sr., who took over as the jail "compliance director" in February 2018. Under the federal court agreement, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has been sidelined from running the jail.

“While there is still significant work to be done to properly staff the facility, curb violence, and improve medical and mental health care, the trend is positive,” the monitors said.

They said mental health care in particular — long a sore spot for the jail administration — has improved at the jail because of a contract with the Tulane University medical school's department of psychiatry.

Nevertheless, the Sheriff’s Office still sees an alarming number of suicide attempts every month. There were 15 attempts in January and 13 attempts in February, officials said in a filing last week.

Jail officials, however, claim that many of those attempts are feints by inmates trying to secure transfers to different housing units.

“We are continuing our attempts to combat housing manipulation through designed suicide attempts, but it continues to be an uphill climb,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

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©2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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