Judge questions New Orleans' request to halt mental health jail construction

Jail officials testified about the need to give inmates with serious mental health problems proper treatment


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

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge took a dim view Monday of the city's request to indefinitely suspend construction of a New Orleans jail building meant to house inmates with mental and medical health problems.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael North questioned why the city only recently claimed it was ordered to build the facility illegally and why it hasn't committed to an alternative plan. Seizing on Mayor LaToya Cantrell's comments from earlier this year that she would rather invest in "people not jails," North asked, "What about the people in jail?"

His comments came at the end of nearly two weeks of testimony about the city's request to press pause on the proposed $51 million, 89-bed facility.

On one side, financial planners testified about the city's dire financial straits amid the coronavirus pandemic. On the other, jail officials testified about the desperate need to give dozens of inmates with serious mental health problems proper treatment.

The hearing was meant to guide North as he makes a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the jail's 2013 court-ordered reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and inmate advocates, known as a consent decree. Africk has long said the new building is needed to bring the jail into compliance.

Cantrell's administration last year said it would go ahead with plans begun under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu to build the facility, and roughly $2 million has already been spent on planning.

But in June, as city revenues and the jail population plummeted due to the pandemic, Cantrell's administration stopped paying its architecture firm and asked the judge to put the project on hold.

The city hasn't formally committed to an alternative plan, although it says it would prefer to retrofit part of the main Orleans Justice Center.

"New Orleans changes the paradigm; we are investing in people not jails," Cantrell said on Twitter in June.

Federal Emergency Management Agency funds would cover at least $36 million of the new facility's construction budget -- the Sheriff's Office contends there's enough federal money for the whole building -- but the city also estimates that it would require $9 million in annual operating costs. City officials warned that money could be stripped from police, fire and EMS budgets.

"Circumstances have changed significantly and unexpectedly," City Attorney Sunni J. LeBeouf said during closing arguments on the city request Monday. "If the city is mandated to proceed building a new jail building, this will subtract from public safety for all of Orleans Parish."

However, North noted that the city has already renovated and added staff to a building called the Temporary Detention Center to house inmates with mental health problems.

"The day (the new building) opens, (the Temporary Detention Center) closes and all those staff move down the street," North said. "That's common sense."

LeBeouf also argued that the city can economize by renovating part of the existing main jail building to house inmates. Jail experts say the current facility doesn't have the proper sightlines to house suicidal inmates or the necessary clinical spaces.

However, attorney Rick Stanley, who represented jail director Darnley Hodge at the hearing, said the jail population has already increased from slightly over 700 inmates to over 900 inmates since the height of the coronavirus shutdown.

He was also dubious of the city's plan to free up the jail's youth pod by transferring young inmates to a juvenile jail in Gentilly.

Meanwhile, FEMA hasn't approved the renovation plan and the city hasn't formally committed to it, North said.

"What the city asked for in its motion was to do nothing, indefinitely," North said.

LeBeouf said the city would like a few weeks to come up with a more definitive alternative.

In addition to pointing to the changes the pandemic has wrought, the city also now claims that Africk illegally ordered the city to build the facility against the terms of a 1996 federal law that prohibits judges from ordering jail construction.

North could scarcely contain his disdain for that objection Monday, noting that the city never raised it before this summer.

"Explain to me why the city wasted $2 million," North said, referring to the money spent on architectural plans for the new building. "No appeal, no objection, no complaints. Instead, what the court got was, every 30 days, a status report from the city of New Orleans, explaining how the city was progressing in building this 'illegal' jail building."

The city was never ordered to build the jail expansion, North said. Instead, it agreed to the process for coming up with housing for the special-population inmates under a 2016 court agreement with the Sheriff's Office.

North gave the city, jail, inmate advocates and Justice Department until Oct. 30 to submit summary briefs on the city request to halt construction, after which he'll make a recommendation to Africk.

LeBeouf warned that rejecting the city's request could run afoul of public opinion.

Advocates have rallied against the jail expansion outside the federal courthouse, state legislators have written letters and the City Council passed a resolution.

"There is not a desire for a new jail building in the city of New Orleans," she said.

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