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Magistrate to address concerns over mental health wing design at La. jail

The jail’s consultant said in a letter to the judge that plans for shared cells and a circular layout of housing units would be a problem for mentally ill inmates


By Joseph Cranney
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — A federal magistrate overseeing plans to build a controversial mental health wing at the Orleans Parish jail has invited the jail’s longtime consultant to discuss his concerns over several of the project’s key design elements at an upcoming hearing.

But that doesn’t appear to make it any more likely that U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael North will agree to halt or alter the so-called Phase III jail addition, as Sheriff Susan Hutson and the project’s many other opponents want.

Consultant James Austin said in a letter to North last week that plans for shared cells and a circular layout of housing units would be highly problematic for severely mentally ill inmates, and that “no credible architect or correctional planner” would sign off on them.

Austin raised the same issues at a City Council committee hearing in early July.

In court papers, North said Austin is welcome to raise those concerns at an Aug. 18 status conference. But North is also demanding that city officials proceed with construction, ordering city officials to provide a project schedule at the hearing, “including a firm start date.”

In a separate ruling two weeks ago, North said he expects that Phase III “will not be delayed in any respect” because of a last-ditch legal effort by Hutson to kill the project. North is advising U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the decade-old consent decree that mandates various improvements to the jail.

Mainly citing the project’s skyrocketing price tag, currently $110 million, Phase III’s opponents — which include Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and the City Council — want the court to allow the jail’s existing facilities to be retrofitted for its special-needs populations. That would save tens of millions of dollars that could be used for other mental health services around the city, they argue.

Phase III’s supporters include the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents the jail’s inmates through the consent decree, and the court’s independent team of monitors.

MacArthur’s attorneys have argued Phase III will help ensure that no severely mentally ill inmates will be housed in one of the jail’s standard, 60-bed dormitories, as is the case now.

In their latest report, monitors called Phase III “critical to the provision of mental and medical health services.” The consent decree, an agreement overseen by the federal government, has roughly 170 provisions that must be met, including standards for medical and mental health care.

However, monitors have agreed in recent reports with Austin’s assertion that special populations should be housed one inmate to a cell, instead of bunking together, as current plans have it. The temporary facility that the jail uses to house some severely ill inmates now “has reaffirmed the necessity of single person cells,” monitors wrote, “which should be factored in the operational capacity of Phase III.”

After a legal challenge by Cantrell’s administration, Africk in 2021 ordered Phase III to be built. His ruling was upheld by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal.

North urged Africk to reject Hutson’s latest filing, saying it was “clearly not a legitimate effort to revisit or reverse court orders advanced by good-faith advocacy based on fact and law.”

It’s unclear whether the court might sign off on changes to Phase III’s design that would address Austin’s concerns. Austin suggested that modifications would “slow things down quite a bit,” so North’s strong opposition to any further hang-ups may present a significant hurdle.

Austin and another consultant, architect Allen Patrick, raised the same design concerns in 2020. Austin said city officials discouraged him from posing objections at the time.

In his letter to North, Austin said he had been “forbidden to raise any objections to the Phase III design” to avoid upsetting the judge.

The city’s architect, Grace Hebert Curtis Architects, wrote the plans. The firm’s principal, Jerry Hebert, has referred questions to the city.


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