New Orleans jail faces 'emergency' need for housing mental health inmates

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections will no longer provide space at a New Orleans jail for inmates with mental health problems


Matt Sledge
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

NEW ORLEANS, La. — New Orleans jail officials are facing an "emergency" involving dozens of inmates with mental health problems after Louisiana corrections officials said they will not renew an agreement to house the inmates at a state prison, according to court documents filed Thursday.

Starting in October, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections will no longer provide space at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel for New Orleans jail inmates with mental health problems, ending a contract that has been renewed each year since a 2013 federal consent decree forced New Orleans to provide adequate facilities for those inmates.

In a court filing Thursday, New Orleans jail director Darnley Hodge Sr. asked for a hearing to discuss his plans to renovate an existing building near the Orleans Justice Center on Perdido Street, which would allow him to provide a place to house the inmates until the long-delayed construction of a permanent facility is completed.

“The upcoming loss of Hunt as a suitable facility that would be available ... to house this inmate population presents a dilemma ... in terms of determining where and how these inmates should be housed until the construction” is finished, Hodge said in the court filing.

The surprise announcement follows months of behind-the-scenes jockeying over the future of parish inmates with mental health needs, according to the documents filed Thursday.

Louisiana Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc told local officials in an Oct. 22 letter that he can no longer house the mental health inmates at Elayn Hunt past October 2019.

“As a result of the continual increase in the population of offenders remanded to the state with mental health needs and the state’s projected housing capacity for this population, we are developing a long-term plan to utilize this space to house state offenders,” LeBlanc said.

A department spokesman said there are no state facilities where the parish inmates could be housed.

Neither Hodge nor his nominal superior, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, mentioned the impending dilemma at a Nov. 15 budget hearing in front of the New Orleans City Council.

Under the 2013 consent decree with the federal government and inmate advocates, the jail is required to provide appropriate services for inmates who suffer from mental health issues.

At the time of the agreement, Gusman’s long-term plan was to build a new 89-bed mental health facility next to the main jail on Perdido Street using millions of dollars from FEMA.

The short-term plan was to send the inmates to Elayn Hunt, where they could live in specialized cells and receive attention from mental health professionals, services that weren't available in New Orleans.

Year after year, the jail extended its agreement with the state as plans for the new mental health facility in New Orleans bogged down amid intra-government squabbles and controversy from inmate advocates who oppose increasing the number of jail beds.

The City Council voted in 2017 to advance plans to build that facility. But while the city has selected an architect and a project manager for the mental health building, known as the “phase III” facility, it has yet to break ground.

The city, which is responsible under state law for the construction of the facility, has not released a final cost estimate.

Hodge, a former corrections official in Virginia, was appointed to run the jail in January 2018. Gusman has been sidelined from day-to-day operations under a 2016 agreement under the consent decree, which is overseen by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

Hodge said building the new facility could still take years. In his court filing, he asked for Africk's help in allowing for the renovation of the Temporary Detention Center, a facility created after Hurricane Katrina that sits near the current jail and currently houses dozens of general-population inmates.

It’s not clear how much renovating and operating the Temporary Detention Center as a mental health facility could cost — or whether Gusman agrees with Hodge that it is the best way of solving the housing issue.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office declined to comment.

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©2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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