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Grass-roots group rallies to block $110M Orleans Justice Center to protect inmate welfare

A grass-roots community group took to the streets and the courts Friday to try and block a proposed expansion of the Orleans Justice Center – or 'Phase III' project.

A grass-roots community group took to the streets as well as the courts on Friday to try and block a proposed expansion of the Orleans Justice Center, the controversial project known as “Phase III.”

More than two dozen members of Voice of the Experienced – V.O.T.E. – gathered on the steps of City Hall Friday morning as part of their ongoing efforts to block the $110 million expansion, designed to house acute mentally ill inmates.

Just hours later, V.O.T.E. backed up its street activism by filing a lawsuit in state civil district court asking for a restraining order to block the city from funding the project.

In its petition, the group claims that Mayor Latoya Cantrell and the city improperly moved $32 million from previously allocated money into a fund for the jail construction.

The group claims the re-allocation took place without going through the proper procedure of a budget amendment and vote of the City Council.

“Defendant has not sought to amend the 2023 Capital Budget to reallocate taxpayer money to build Phase III,” states the petition filed by V.O.T.E. attorney Emily Posner. “The Defendant’s actions circumvent and undermine not only the Petitioner’s legal rights, but those of the New Orleans community at large.”

The lawsuit is just the latest in a series of objections and legal maneuvers to block the Phase III construction, which has been ordered under the federal consent decree designed to improve conditions for inmates.

The previous objections, most of them longshot filings in federal court, include the skyrocketing price tag, the controversial panopticon circular design and Sheriff Susan Hutson’s position that she doesn’t have enough deputies to staff a new jail facility.

Bruce Reily, deputy director of V.O.T.E., maintains that one of the group’s primary missions is the welfare of inmates at the jail. Its position on Phase III puts it in awkward opposition to another reform-minded advocacy group, the MacArthur Justice Center, the attorney-of-record for inmates covered by the consent decree.

Reily said a recent survey by the group taken inside the jail shows that most current inmates are unaware of the decade-old consent decree, much less the details and design of Phase III. In Hutson’s upset defeat of incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman in 2021, she said one of her main goals was to scrap Phase III in favor of a less expensive and more humane alternative.

The lawsuit, however, focuses more on budget procedure than it does on inmate welfare.

“You can't do anything at this size and magnitude without proper notification and proper public hearing,” Reily said. “It came as a big surprise to a lot of people that the city has been sort of socking away some money.”

The initial hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 5.

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