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Size and capacity of parish prison’s new buildings scrutinized

25th November 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has rebuilt and replaced Katrina-damaged facilities since he took office in 2004, and lately he’s been giving tours of two new prison structures ahead of election day in February. “Since the summer, the jail’s suddenly the city’s newest tourist attraction,” Norris Henderson, executive director of VOTE or Voice of the Ex-Offender, a New Orleans-based advocacy group, said last week. “No one could get in to see it before.” On a weekday early this month, Henderson toured the facilities with Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, of which he’s a member.

As a graduate of the same college as Sheriff Gusman, this reporter saw the new buildings on Nov. 9 during a University of Pennsylvania alumni tour. Following us that Saturday, the Girl Scouts, who recently launched a Behind Bars program at the jail to unite female inmates and their daughters, took a tour.

Gusman and several of his deputies showed Penn alumni the completed, $81.5 million kitchen-warehouse-electrical generation building on Perdido St. After that, we piled into a van and headed along Perdido to the $145 million, Phase II jail and intake-processing center, expected to be ready by May. The new kitchen and jail were funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency. Gusman discussed a possible Phase III building that Mayor Mitch Landrieu initially opposed, but is now considering. That structure, which could cost $55 million, would be on publicly-owned land between the kitchen and the Phase II jail, to house mentally ill inmates and provide medical services.

The jail’s giant, new high-tech kitchen can serve between 25,000 to 30,000 meals a day—far more than three squares meals needed for nearly 2,400 inmates now. Meanwhile, the Phase II jail will be able to house 1,438 inmates. But that structure will probably accommodate only slightly more than 1,200 residents because of a need to separate youth, women, the sick and mentally ill from the general prison population, Gusman said. Phase II isn’t equipped to handle inmates in need of acute mental care, he said.

The original plan was to abandon other OPP structures once the Phase II jail was built. Under a 2011 city ordinance, Gusman was expected to design the Phase II building to contain up to 1,438 beds and accommodate any type of inmate. This year, however, the sheriff said that he has always anticipated that the city would build Phase III for special classes of inmates. That has irked Mayor Landrieu’s administration, which was expecting the Phase I and II structures only.

City Hall is now studying the Phase III idea. “In August 2013, the mayor agreed to recommend to the City Council that it allow Templeman V to temporarily remain open to provide health care to inmates, while an analysis is done to determine whether a Phase III would be necessary,” Garnesha Crawford, the mayor’s communications director, said last week. “Analysis is still under way.” Templeman V is a 300-bed facility in the OPP complex..

Outside of the tours, Yvette Thierry, executive director of New Orleans nonprofit Safe Streets and a member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, last week wondered how OPP has ended up with a bigger-than-needed kitchen, while its Phase II jail and intake processing center won’t meet inmate requirements, necessitating a third building. “It’s unclear why a kitchen of that magnitude was built while the jail isn’t right-sized,” she said. “The sheriff knows better than anyone what was needed and should have sat down and thought about this earlier.”

Sheriff Gusman raised the issue of the jail’s per diems on the Penn tour. He said contrary to public opinion, inmates aren’t held longer than necessary so the prison can pocket more per diems. The city pays the prison $22.38 per inmate a day for shelter and food. Local, pretrial detainees make up most of the jail’s population. The state pays a slightly higher per diem than the city’s rate to house OPP inmates convicted of state charges. And the U.S. Marshal’s office pays roughly double the city’s per diem to Gusman for federal inmates, who are mainly immigration cases.

Thierry firmly believes the sheriff detains inmates to earn per diem money. “Once they’ve been bailed, they should be released,” she said. OPPRC has lobbied to get rid of per diems, and she expects them to end under the current, federal consent decree. Henderson said only a couple of other big prison systems in the nation, both located in the southeastern United States, still operate with daily rates.

Last December, Sheriff Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department agreed to an Orleans Parish Prison Consent Decree to bring what the feds view as the jail’s unconstitutional safety, sanitary, mental health and healthcare conditions into compliance. Inmates are represented in the decree by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Justice Dept. has been particularly concerned about violent assaults, rapes and suicides by inmates, along with beatings by guards. In September, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk in New Orleans approved a team of monitors or correctional experts to implement court-ordered reforms at the prison.

During the Penn tour of the Phase II lockup, Gusman said the new, four-story structure is near the courtrooms and consolidates operations spread across more than ten buildings and tents now. The building has its own power, reducing the need to evacuate inmates during hurricanes. The future cells that we passed on the first floor had two bunk beds and a toilet each. Inmates will have access to adjoining day rooms and outdoor exercise areas. The new building has control rooms for deputies, allowing them to monitor the day rooms and outside areas, and the days rooms contain large desks from which the staff will watch inmates, Gusman said. The consent decree requires guards to make rounds every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on types of inmates. The building’s fourth floor will be an open dorm with no cells. Ceilings are high throughout the Phase II structure.

Gusman said the Phase III building that he’s seeking will have only a fraction of the beds of Phase II. Last week, OPP’s Stelly said it’s too early to know how many beds will be needed in Phase III or what the structure will cost.

OPPRC members have concerns about a third building. Studies by the Vera Institute of Justice and others have shown the mentally ill aren’t particularly violent or crime prone, Thierry said. “But they, along with the homeless, end up in jail here, get lost in the system and require treatment as inmates,” she said. “With more services on the outside, many of them wouldn’t be in jail.” The city’s mental health care is lacking in part because Katrina destroyed clinics. “And some of the services offered after Katrina, like Spirit, were poorly run and a waste of resources,” Thierry said. Louisiana Spirit, the state’s post-hurricane, stress-counseling program, ended in 2008.

Henderson said according to recent numbers he heard, only nine OPP inmates suffer from acute mental illness. Others have less serious, mental health problems. “Under the circumstances, do you really need a new 300-bed building?” he asked. On the Penn tour, Gusman estimated that 20 percent of inmates have mental health issues, a greater percentage have problems with substance abuse, and ten percent of inmates are on medication.

The Justice Dept. has said the prison’s mental health care, particularly its suicide-prevention efforts, are deficient, and that better medical care is also needed.

Gusman’s estimates of how much it will cost yearly to bring jail conditions into constitutional compliance are much higher than the Landrieu administration’s figures. Last Thursday, the City Council approved the Mayor’s 2014 operating budget of $505 million, including $24.2 million for OPP, of which $2.05 million is for federally-required prison reforms. Gusman, however, had asked for more than $41 million for next year, including $11 million for the consent decree. Funds for OPP’s consent decree will come from the city’s projected surplus this year.

Meanwhile, the Landrieu administration has offered to help Gusman find ways to reduce what it believes is excessive spending at OPP.

After Katrina struck in 2005, the city and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office were both awarded grants to reconstruct jail buildings that each owned at the time of the storm. FEMA gave $67 million to the city, part of which is unused, and provided $254 million to the sheriff’s office, of which $54 million remains.

This article originally published in the November 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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