Size of Rebuild at Orleans Parish Prison Is Scrutinized

12/01/2013 05:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2014

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Nov. 25, 2013 edition.)

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman had to rebuild Katrina-damaged facilities after he took office in 2004 and lately he's been giving tours of two 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. The local Girl Scouts followed us that Saturday in a separate look as part of their Behind Bars program for female inmates and their daughters.

Gusman and several of his deputies showed off the completed, $81.5 million kitchen-warehouse and electrical-generation structure on Perdido St. It represents Phase I of the rebuild approved by a city ordinance in 2011. After that, our group 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. During the tour, Gusman discussed a possible, Phase III building that Mayor Mitch Landrieu initially opposed but is now considering. That structure, which could cost $55 million and be on land between the kitchen and the Phase II jail, would 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. And under the federal consent decree, medical and mental health services have to be improved.

Last December, Sheriff Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department agreed to an Orleans Parish Prison Consent Decree to bring the jail's safety, sanitary, mental health and health care conditions into federal compliance. Inmates are represented in the decree by the MacArthur Justice Center. The Justice Dept. has been 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 reforms at the prison.

The original plan was to abandon other OPP structures once the Phase II jail was built. Under the city's 2011 ordinance, Gusman was to design the Phase II building to contain up to 1,438 beds and accommodate any type of inmate. But last year, the sheriff said a Phase III structure is needed for special classes of prisoners, particularly the mentally ill, and also for health services. He suggested it be erected on city-owned land between Phase I and II That irked Mayor Landrieu's administration, which had anticipated I and II 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. That analysis is still under way, she said. Templeman V is a city-owned, 300-bed facility in the OPP complex.

Outside of the tours, Yvette Thierry, executive director of New Orleans nonprofit Safe Streets/Strong Communities and a member of the OPPRC, last week wondered how OPP has ended up with a bigger-than-needed kitchen, while its Phase II jail and intake center won't meet inmate requirements so that a third structure may be in the works. "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."

The new kitchen is an enigma. "It's a lot of possible meals and a part of the puzzle that we're trying to figure out," Henderson said. In an almost 40-year tradition, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office this week hosts a free Thanksgiving dinner that's open to all residents at the Ernest Morial Convention Center.

Thierry and Henderson mentioned some of the past food forays at the prison, including management's use of inmate labor to raise tilapia. Thierry said the prison's revenues and spending have never been clear, and she wouldn't be surprised if management has an income-producing scheme for the kitchen--possibly serving meals outside the prison system.

"They can't be planning to feed the New Orleans population during hurricanes because everyone's supposed to evacuate now," Henderson said.

Meanwhile, the prison's aquaculture program ended in June of last year to make room for new inmate housing, OPP spokesman Philip Stelly said last week.

When Penn alumni gathered in the staff dining area at the tour's start, coffee and blueberry turnovers from the prison bakery were served. As for the inmates' diet, the new kitchen uses state-of-the-art heating and cooling equipment to eliminate bacteria, Gusman said. Even before the kitchen was built, no food-poisoning incidents had been documented at the prison in decades, he said. But last week Thierry said inmates have repeatedly complained about "green meat sandwiches" and other risky fare.

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 on state charges. And the U.S. Marshals Service pays roughly double the city's per diem to Gusman for federal inmates, mostly immigration cases.

But 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 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.

On the Penn tour, Gusman said the partly erected, four-story Phase II lockup is near the courtrooms and consolidates operations spread across more than ten buildings and tents now. Phases I and II have their own power, reducing the need to evacuate inmates during hurricanes. The future cells we saw on the first floor of Phase II had two bunk beds and a toilet each. Inmates will have access to adjoining day rooms and outdoor exercise areas. The new lockup has control areas for deputies, allowing them to monitor the day rooms and outside areas, and the days rooms contain large desks for watching 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 would be needed in Phase III or what the structure might cost.

OPPRC members question the rationale for a third building. Studies by the Vera Institute of Justice, with offices in New York and New Orleans, and by other groups 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, a post-hurricane, stress-counseling program, is operated by the state's Dept. of Health and Hospitals.

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 inmates need better medical attention.

Gusman's estimates of how much it will cost yearly to bring the jail into constitutional compliance are much higher than the Landrieu administration's figures. Last Thursday, the New Orleans 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. The $2.05 million in funds for OPP's consent decree will come from a projected, city surplus.

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 property that each owned separately. FEMA gave the city $67 million, part of which is unused, and provided $254 million to the sheriff's office, of which $54 million remains.

Gusman has more power and revenue since the Orleans civil sheriff and criminal sheriff offices were consolidated in 2010, but if reelected he'll be subject to oversight by the new monitoring team and federal Judge Africk. Gusman's opponents in the Feb. 1 primary are attorney Charles Foti, Jr., who was the criminal sheriff for 30 years before him, and Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas. end