Next week, Sheriff Gusman will face two federal court hearings concerning the size and conditions of our jail. On Monday, he will face a hearing over his decision to remove nearly 300 people (all awaiting trial) out of Orleans Parish Prison and across the state—causing a host of constitutional crises including missed court dates and denied access to legal representation—while he warehoused nearly 300 people serving state sentences, none of whom he had a legal obligation to hold. On Tuesday, Sheriff Gusman will face a status conference on compliance with the federal Consent Decree. Despite the brand new facility, conditions at OPP remain violent, unsafe, and out of compliance with constitutional standards. The illusion has been created that conditions in the jail have improved, and that an additional jail building is necessary. In reality, despite the brand new facility, the culture of neglect and disregard for the safety of our community members who are incarcerated persists. By shuffling pre-trial inmates across the state while he maintained an ineffective reentry program for state inmates, and by continuing to refuse to retrofit Phase II to accommodate special populations, Sheriff Gusman is seeking to expand our jail system and expose too many New Orleanians to the violence and horrors of OPP.
We cannot incarcerate our way out of our social problems. Roughly 10% of the city’s budget is now spent operating the jail, a figure that will only increase if Phase III is built. We could be reallocating those funds towards building the infrastructure of a caring, safer community—affordable housing and transportation, mental and physical healthcare, drug rehabilitation programs, jobs and job trainings, libraries, community centers, equitable schools, cultural activities, all of which we know to be effective in keeping us safe. Communities are destabilized when breadwinners are thrown behind bars, when children lose their parents to the system, and when those who were incarcerated are locked out of nearly every opportunity for advancement if and when they come home. Expanding our jail will not keep us safer.
Again and again our community has spoken. We have demanded a safer jail, and a smaller jail. Through the work of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), and a broad coalition of concerned leaders and community members, we have demanded the beginning of the end of our incarceration crisis—we fought for the federal consent decree to improve conditions, and we worked hard to get the 1,438 cap cemented into law. And yet, we find ourselves working fiercely to protect all that we’ve won.
Judge Lance Africk, we urge you to do what’s right. A large, dangerous jail is not a solution. We urge you to hear our demands for alternatives.