Advocates urge New Orleans to abandon jail expansion plans, call for rehab instead
Activists are calling to ditch plans to build a separate wing in the jail for inmates with mental health issues and renovate part of the existing lockup instead
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
NEW ORLEANS — Activists are calling on New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council to ditch plans to build a separate wing of the New Orleans jail for inmates with mental health problems. They propose renovating part of the existing lockup instead.
At a forum Tuesday, advocates told two council members that the city should abandon a plan that would create a new building for inmates with mental health problems after housing them at a renovated temporary facility for several years.
That two-step construction project has emerged as a top priority for U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the jail’s court-ordered reform plan, but the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition says Africk lacks the legal authority to order construction of a jail building.
Instead, coalition members are calling on Cantrell to follow through on a proposal she floated in January to renovate part of the main jail building, arguing that it would save money in the long run and help reduce the incarceration rate.
“We believe that if you build it, they will come. The more beds there are, the more people will suddenly be in the building,” said Leslie Molson. “Higher incarceration rates do not improve safety.”
The anti-incarceration activists appear to have allies on the council. Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen said she opposes any expansion of the city's jail beyond a current cap of 1,438 beds; that cap would prevent the creation of more beds at a separate mental health facility.
Her colleague Kristin Gisleson Palmer said she would oppose the creation of new beds under the control of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“I would be supportive of a mental health facility that's not within the criminal justice system, because I do not believe that people who are mentally ill should be incarcerated, and I also do not believe that the sheriff's core competency is treating people who are mentally ill,” she said.
It’s not clear when or how a proposal for housing mentally ill inmates may go before the City Council. Palmer said she has yet to see final plans from administration officials.
The City Council voted against sending a rehab proposal to the City Planning Commission in 2017, but most of the members on the council now are new since then.
The Sheriff’s Office opposes the idea of renovating the main jail as impractical.
The Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, says it faces both short-term and long-term crises in housing dozens of inmates with serious mental health problems.
Although the jail’s overall population has declined from more than 3,300 inmates in 2010 to about 1,200 today, the Sheriff’s Office still struggles to provide appropriate housing for inmates with psychiatric problems.
Since 2014, it has housed male inmates with mental problems at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel under a contract with the state, but state officials plan to evict them in October. Female parish inmates with mental problems do not have a dedicated separate space.
Jail director Darnley Hodge Sr., who runs day-to-day operations at the lockup, said he wants to renovate the outlying Temporary Detention Center to house male and female inmates for the next few years.
He would also like the city to follow through on a long-planned expansion of the jail with about 90 new beds for mental health inmates using Federal Emergency Management Agency funding.
The judge said in a court filing earlier this month that the city has agreed to renovate the Temporary Detention Center and begin working on plans for an expansion of the main jail. He ordered the city to provide regular updates on the planning and construction process.
Yet there are signs that Cantrell is hesitant about following Hodge’s preferred path. Her administration called renovating the Temporary Detention Center “very costly” in one court filing and earlier this year proposed renovating only the main jail building instead — an idea that former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office considered and ultimately rejected.
The city said renovating the main jail would leave the Sheriff’s Office with a total capacity of 1,300 beds, well below the main jail’s current total of 1,438 beds.
Advocates at Tuesday's meeting said rehabbing the main jail would cement the city’s commitment to reduce the inmate population under 1,000 people.
“While (Sheriff Marlin) Gusman is asking for money and support for adding more beds, the city on the other hand has actually taken $2 million and promised to lower the population further, so we need to hold the city to that,” said Molson, referring to a recent grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help reduce the number of inmates.
©2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.