NEW ORLEANS - Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently agreed to let Sheriff Marlin Gusman build a third new building on city property at the Orleans Parish Prison complex.
Now, a group fighting to keep the jail size in check is crying foul bout the additional beds the mayor recently agreed to.
Construction to replace Katrina-damaged jail facilities is underway at Orleans Parish Prison. After months' of meetings with the leaders of the Landrieu administration, leaders of the criminal justice system and community groups, Sheriff Marlin Gusman started construction on a new jail capped at 1,438 inmates.
“We're calling for a smaller jail than what we have in place right now. But the point that we're making is that if you look at who's in that jail and what they're in that jail for right now, you cannot have a functional capacity of less than 2,000 inmates,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President and CEO of the MCC.
In recent weeks, Landrieu agreed to allow Gusman to build a third building on the city land tower for specialized inmates.
At the construction site, it's pretty easy to see where the new building has always been planned to go. Right now there's a walkway to nowhere extending from the newly-built kitchen and warehouse. The question is how big should that new building be?
Gusman designed it to house 600. Landrieu agreed to no more than 250.
“I think we are kind of selling fear in the sense of, the numbers not adding up,” said Norris Henderson, a leader of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.
The group was involved in the original talks about jail size. Like many across the country, Henderson's pushing to end over-incarceration.
“By the time that this new building is constructed, if you put all the things in place that need to be put in place, cite and release, police say they were gonna do their part. The judges are supposed to do their part about bail reform, about pre-trial services,” he said.
But Goyeneche argues anything less than a $2,000 inmate functional capacity would pose a public safety threat because of the violent nature of New Orleans’ crime problem.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman issued this statement on the size of the jail:
“The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has been on a path to a smaller jail since the day I took office. In 2004 more than 6,000 inmates were housed in Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office facilities with more than 7,520 beds. They were spread out over 12 buildings, some of which were nearly 80 years old and inadequate for modern correctional practices.
“We made the decision in 2004 to no longer settle for the status quo and warehouse prisoners. Today, there are 2,397 inmates in the custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and less than 2,900 beds, a decrease of over 50 percent.
“The design of the new jail facility meets the highest standards of the American Correctional Association. A smaller, safer jail must prioritize modern security and safety features, as well as the capability to provide best practices for inmate care and mental health treatment facilities, and designated protective custody housing and other specialized housing.
“This is not an issue of size, but rather the right facilities for modern incarceration and corrections. To ignore reality jeopardizes the security and safety of our community. Despite many challenges, the Sheriff’s Office will continue our efforts to make New Orleans a safer city.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued the following statement about his decision to allow construction:
“Mayor Landrieu is committed to building a right-sized, fiscally sound and constitutional jail to keep dangerous criminals off the streets in a way that does not cause the City to lay off police officers and fire fighters. The number of prison beds will be decided as part of a comprehensive resolution to the OPP consent decree. In the meantime, we’re doing our part through the multi-agency gang unit to target repeat offenders, a beefed up homicide unit, hot-spot community policing, establishment of pre-trial services, and the Mayor’s support of eliminating jail per-diems.”