NEW ORLEANS — The City of New Orleans announced formal plans to suspend construction of an upgraded mental health wing for the Orleans Parish Jail on Monday, after calling the jail expansion a "waste of taxpayer dollars" in a previous legal brief.
The city's chief administrative officer, Ramsey Green, spoke to reporters Monday about the city's decision to ask a federal judge for approval to indefinitely suspend funding for the $56 million building expansion.
Green said FEMA had provided $36 million for the construction of the facility, to house patients with mental health problems, but that actual costs would be closer to $56 million — a $20 million gap the city says it is not able to pay with a coronavirus-caused deficit of more than $100 million.
In a brief statement ahead of the press conference, city officials said they were planning to "suspend the programming, design and construction" of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office jail facility's newest upgrade, and that the request to do so was filed in court Monday afternoon.
Green said that instead, the Temporary Detention Center on Perdido Street, which came online after Hurricane Katrina, would finish renovations by the end of July and would be able to serve as a mental health ward through at least Summer 2022, when the jail expansion was expected to be finished.
"We've added beds, we've added space to serve that population," Green said.
According to reporting on a previous legal filing by The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, a declining jail population and looming funding troubles contributed to the decision against the jail expansion.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people in jail plummeted to a modern low of 793 as judges sided with public defenders and Sheriff Marlin Gusman to move people out of jail. As of Monday, the jail population was 863.
City attorneys said in the legal brief filed weeks ago that tightening budgets, also caused by coronavirus, meant that the $9.5 million annual operating cost of the facility couldn't be justified.
The city is requesting a stop to construction through the courts because a federal judge overseeing the jail's reform agreement with the federal government ordered it built after a years-long debate about jailing in New Orleans.
In 2012, a federal consent decree was issued for the jail, leading to the opening of a $150 million jail building three years later. But that new building had a flaw: despite its 1,438-bed capacity, there was no dedicated space for people with severe medical or mental health problems.
The judge overseeing the consent decree ordered a wing be built to house those people. City officials hope that their track record so far with implementing consent decree mandates will earn them some goodwill as they seek to change the plan.