Open Letter in Response to Proposed Jail Expansion

 

 

 

Dear Members of City Council,

We, the undersigned organizations through the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), write in response to the Supplemental Compliance Action Plan filed on January 4, 2017 by Compliance Director Gary Maynard. We wish to convey our firm commitment to the 1,438-bed cap of the jail, and our opposition to any jail expansion in excess of that cap. Our position is grounded in our commitment to improving conditions for people with mental illnesses, and in improving public safety through ending over-incarceration. We call upon our City Council representatives to use their authority to support a Phase III with no additional beds, support a retrofit of Phase II to constitutionally house those with mental illnesses who must be incarcerated, and oppose the renovation of the Temporary Detention Center (TDC), in order to truly improve safety for residents inside and outside of jail.

The responsibility of ensuring that the Orleans Justice Center does not expand beyond 1,438 beds lies with the City Council. According to the Stipulated Order for Appointment of Independent Jail Compliance Director, which tasked the Compliance Director with developing a plan for special populations, “The City of New Orleans shall maintain final authority and approval over capital expenditures associated with that plan, including use of Templeman II FEMA funding exclusively for the use of that plan.” Additionally, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a federal judge cannot order the construction of a jail building.[1] Finally, according to Ordinance No. 24,282, construction of additional jail buildings will require a conditional use permit with final approval from City Council, and any operating budget associated with Director Maynard’s plan also requires the approval of City Council. Thus, City Council has the authority and responsibility to ensure that no additional jail beds are constructed; doing so is a matter of the political will of our elected Councilmembers. Below is our response to Director Maynard’s plan, as well as suggestions for an alternative plan for housing Special Populations in the jail.

The undersigned are adamantly opposed to the addition of 89 more beds in the Phase III building, which would significantly undermine the City’s efforts to reduce mass incarceration and improve public safety. As members of the Council are aware, New Orleans incarcerates its residents at nearly twice the national average in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.[2] The City of New Orleans has made significant progress in reducing mass incarceration, and has committed to reducing the jail population to 1,277 by 2018 through the Safety and Justice Challenge.[3] There is no long-term need to build more jail beds, and approving this proposed expansion would be a major step backward.[4]

While we share a deep concern for the condition of people with acute mental illness in the jail, Phase III is an inappropriate way to care for people with severe mental illnesses, who do not belong in jail. Providing constitutional conditions in the existing jail can be achieved through a smart retrofit of Phase II facilities to safely house people until they can be transferred to a hospital. City money used to operate a mental health jail is money that could be spent on mental health treatment in the community, to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system to begin with, and to care for them when they are released. As we have seen through too many deaths of people with mental illness in the jail, jail is an unsafe environment for people with mental illnesses, and can exacerbate existing mental health conditions.[5] A mental health jail is not a true or appropriate “solution.”

Furthermore, the details and costs for the recommendation remain ambiguous, and to support a plan without adequate details is irresponsible. Based on the limited information available, it could cost an estimated $2.2 million annually, at least, to operate the 89-bed part of the Phase III building, according to estimates from the Vera Institute of Justice. Although the costs of Phase III are obscure, the human costs of investing in the infrastructure of mass incarceration are known. Destabilizing families and communities is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and does not contribute to public safety.

In addition, we oppose the proposed renovation of the Temporary Detention Center (TDC) for 200 “overflow” beds for several reasons. First, TDC is not a solution to bringing those held out of parish back to Orleans parish, as it was intended. Currently, there is inadequate staff for the existing Phase II facility, and it will take several months at minimum to reach appropriate staffing levels for an additional facility. Secondly, opening a facility for an “overflow” population creates a dangerous precedent, and undermines the city’s efforts to reduce its incarceration rate; the City instead should prioritize releasing those who do not need to be in jail, rather than opening an “overflow” facility. [6] Thirdly, it will cost an estimated $2.8 million annually to operate 200 beds in TDC, and because FEMA funds are not available to renovate TDC, renovation expenses will likely come out of the City’s budget. Thus, it is irresponsible to invest so much of the city’s resources into a temporary building that does not adequately address the problem it was intended to solve; instead, energy, resources, and attention should be shifted towards reducing the number of people who do not need to be in jail.

Though we oppose the 89-bed expansion and the renovation of TDC, we applaud several aspects of Director Maynard’s recommendation, in particular, his recommendation for an infirmary, additional attorney visitation rooms, and additional family visitation rooms. These recommendations will greatly enhance the safety and wellbeing of those held in OPSO custody, will ensure that cases are processed more quickly, and will help people who are incarcerated maintain their relationships and connections to their family and community.

 The undersigned wish to propose that City Council take the following position: 1) support a Phase III building, with the auxiliary services proposed by Director Maynard, without any additional jail beds, 2) support a retrofit of Phase II to constitutionally house those with mental illnesses who must be incarcerated, and 3) oppose the renovation of TDC, and instead focus resources on reducing the jail population. City funds spent operating both TDC and the 89-bed facility in Phase III could cost upwards of $5 million annually, in addition to the renovation costs associated with TDC. This money could be better spent investing in de-carceration efforts, as well as mental health treatment outside of the jail.

New Orleans residents were promised that the new jail facility would be capped at 1,438 beds and would eliminate the violence and neglect that plagued OPP. And yet, the recent deaths in the Orleans Justice Center are a tragic illustration of the dire need to oppose an expansion of the jail in the name of mental health. Just two weeks ago, Colby Crawford, who had a history of serious mental illness, died while in custody at the Orleans Justice Center while awaiting trial after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Preliminary reports show that not a single deputy was on the tier at the time of his death. Hours before his death, the family of Cleveland Tumblin filed a lawsuit against jail officials after Mr. Tumblin, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide in the jail last year.

Neither of these two men should have ever been incarcerated in the first place. The recommendation for an expansion further exacerbates many of the factors that led to these deaths, including the critical staffing shortage. In no way does it make sense to expand the jail as a solution to the atrocious conditions inside. Jail is an inappropriate and dangerous place for people with serious mental illness, and we oppose any jail expansion in their name.

Sincerely,

The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition

Undersigned organizations:

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana

ATD Fourth World

BreakOUT!

Congress of Day Laborers

Fight for $15

Healing Minds Nola

Hope House

Project Detour

Stand with Dignity

Voice of the Experienced (VOTE)

Women with a Vision (WWAV)

 

 

To:

Councilmember Stacy Head, At-Large

Councilmember Jason Williams, At-Large

Councilmember Susan Guidry, District A

Councilmember LaToya Cantrell, District B

Councilmember Nadine Ramsey, District C

Councilmember Jared Brossett, District D

Councilmember James Gray II, District E

Cc:

Compliance Director Gary Maynard

Mayor Mitchell Landrieu

Federal Judge Lance Africk

 

[1] Section 802, subsection C of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 states that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize the courts, in exercising their remedial powers, to order the construction of prisons or the raising of taxes, or to repeal or detract from otherwise applicable limitations on the remedial powers of the courts.”

[2] Calvin Johnson, Mathilde Laisne, and Jon Wool. Justice in Katrina’s Wake: Changing Course on Incarceration in New Orleans. New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015.

[3] Schirmer, Sarah. “Jail Population Management Subcommittee Of The Sanford “Sandy” Krasnoff Criminal Justice Council January 30, 2017”. 2017. Presentation.

[4] Mathilde Laisne, Theresa McKinney, Rose Wilson, Corinna Yazbek. New Orleans: Who’s in Jail and why? First Quarterly Report. Vera institute of Justice, 2016.

[5] “Deaths in OPP-2009 to present.” Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. https://opprcnola.org/the-context/timeline-of-deaths-in-opp/. Accessed March 8, 2017.

[6] According to the recent Vera Report, “Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans,” in 2015 over 550 people on any give day were in jail because they couldn’t pay bail or were arrested for unpaid fines and fees. The City of New Orleans invests significant resources incarcerating people who do not need to be in jail, and who pose no danger to themselves or to society.

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