Court: New Orleans must follow judge's order to build jail expansion

The city must build a $60 million expansion for inmates with mental and medical health problems

By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration must abide by a federal judge's order to build a $60 million jail expansion for incarcerated people with mental and medical health problems, an appeals court said Thursday.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an order from U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who said the "special needs" building is required to ensure that incarcerated people's constitutional rights are observed.

Cantrell and new Sheriff Susan Hutson had argued that the new building, which must be paid for by the city, is a waste of resources better spent on people before they land in jail. They said the city should instead renovate part of the existing main jail. Former Sheriff Marlin Gusman was a stout supporter of the new building before his defeat in the December runoff election with Hutson.

Community leaders and members of the City Council had also lined up against the jail building in letters, petitions and resolutions.

A long fight

The jail building has been in the works for a decade, and long the source of contention. Under pressure from the federal consent decree mandating reforms at the jail, Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration agreed to build the facility in 2017.

Yet as the city's finances cratered during the pandemic in June 2020, the Cantrell administration abruptly halted work. The U.S. Department of Justice and lawyers at the MacArthur Justice Center, who represent incarcerated people at the jail, said the city was in violation of the earlier court agreement.

In January 2021, Africk issued a terse order requiring the city to follow through on its commitment to build the facility.

The city appealed to the circuit court, arguing that because of "changed circumstances" it should no longer be forced to build the facility. The city argued three changes: that the Sheriff's Office was now providing adequate care, that the jail's population had dropped significantly and that it didn't have enough money to build the facility.

City's argument 'lacks merit'

In a 15-page opinion written by Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, the appeals court swiftly brushed aside the city's objections.

There was "ample evidence," Barksdale said, that the jail lacks suicide-resistant cells, activity space for programs and an infirmary.

The decline in the inmate population was no surprise and in fact had long been predicted by the city, Barksdale said.

Moreover, the city's assertion that it didn't have enough cash to build the expansion also "lacks merit," Barksdale said. The city has $48 million in FEMA funds that it could use for the facility, according to the judge.

Barksdale, a George H.W. Bush appointee, was joined by Judge Carl Stewart and James Dennis, both Bill Clinton appointees.

Although construction crews haven't broken ground at the planned site for the new building on Perdido Street, the city remains under court order to pursue construction.

Magistrate Judge Michael North has accused the city of dragging its feet, but in a June 15 status report the city said it continues to move forward on the project. Architectural plans for the building are fully completed and have been submitted for review to the city Department of Safety and Permits and the state Fire Marshal's Office, the city said.

While earlier estimates pegged the cost of the building at $51 million, the status report said it will cost $60 million.

The city said it will begin formal procurement when it has received approval on an environmental review from FEMA and when upon appropriation of an additional $30 million. Construction is expected to take 24 months.

In a prepared statement, Hutson's office said she was "exploring her options."

"Throughout her campaign, Sheriff Hutson was steadfast in her opposition to Phase III," said a spokesperson, Timothy David Ray, referring to a name often used for the new building. "The citizens of New Orleans elected her to serve as their Sheriff; embracing her commitment to retrofitting the existing jail. In light of the decision from the Fifth Circuit, the Sheriff is exploring her options and considering next steps."

The city did not immediately comment.


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