City Council to Hear Jail Expansion Proposal

On May 11th, at 10 AM the Criminal Justice Committee of City Council is scheduled to hear a presentation about the proposed jail expansion. Let's pack the house and let them know New Orleans does NOT need more jail cells! Check out Facebook.com/OPPReform for details, as City Council meeting dates often change.

Click HERE to download "Debunking the Jail Expansion in New Orleans" for more information and talking points!

Can't make the meeting? Call your City Council representative to let them know you OPPOSE more jail cells! See below:

Call Script

Below is a sample call script you may use when contacting city council.

Hi, my name is __________, and I’m a resident and voter in District______. I’m calling to urge you to say NO the proposed jail expansion, and YES to the retrofit option. New Orleans has the ability to adequately care for people in the jail without increasing the number jail cells—an option that you yourself have supported in the past. Instead of investing in the infrastructure of mass incarceration, I urge you to spend time and resources investing in what will truly keep my community safe—healthcare, affordable housing, transportation, and jobs. Please reject the jail expansion proposal and put the retrofit back on the table in order to keep our communities safe, healthy, and whole. During this election year I will be watching this issue closely.

City Council Contact

If you do not know who your City Council representative is, call the front desk at (504) 658-1000 and ask!

Stacy Head

Councilmember-At-Large

(504) 658-1060

Jason Williams

Councilmember-At-Large

(504) 658-1070

Susan Guidry

District A

(504) 658-1010

LaToya Cantrell

District B

(504) 658-1020

Nadine Ramsey

District C

(504) 658-1030

Jared Brossett

District D

(504) 658-1040

James Gray

District E

(504) 658-1050

This Week's Hearings

On Monday and Tuesday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman faced two hearings in federal court. Monday's hearing concerned Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office's (OPSO) plan for staffing the new jail (now called the Orleans Justice Center, or OJC), in light of the sheriff's announcement last week that he would send people with state charges back to state custody. At Tuesday's hearing the monitoring team reported on the conditions in OJC, the first official report since the move to the new building. Recap of the hearings:

At Monday’s hearing, Judge Africk began by fining both the city’s and the sheriff’s attorneys $1000 each for their failures to submit a document on time to the court. (Don’t worry taxpayers, the fines will come out of the attorneys’ own pockets, not ours). Chief of Corrections Carmen DeSadier was asked how the removal of people serving state sentences would affect the staffing shortages in the jail. DeSadier did not appear to know where her staff worked and what their duties were—eventually Judge Africk ordered the sheriff’s staff to check with payroll for a list of over 700 employees, and to submit that list along with the duties of each person to the court. In addition, the sheriff's attorney explained the system for housing people in the new jail (which the monitor pointed out was essentially meaningless given the lack of adherence to a classification system), and Judge Africk asked for the details of who in the sheriff's custody had state charges, who would be sent back to state custody, and who would remain at OJC and why. The sheriff’s staff appeared to have little idea about who was in their jail and who worked for them, and the sheriff himself was ordered to testify the next day.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Africk and the monitoring team expressed their concerns at the lack of progress, and Judge Africk expressed particular frustration over the mounting costs of this lawsuit . The monitors reported that the levels of violence in the new jail were “absolutely unacceptable.” Because of the lack of reporting by OPSO, the monitors had consulted with the medical log to identify incidents of violence. The numbers are staggering: In the first 3 months in the new jail, there were 150 incidents (119 of which had not been reported), including over 200 assaults, 16 attempted suicides, 44 uses of force (of which only 20 were reported), 3 sexual assaults, and one death from a chronic illness. There have already been 114 incidents in 2016 alone. We heard, too, about the monitors' explanations for why violence remained so high, reasons which including a lack of a system of classification, and inadequate training and supervision of the sheriff's deputies who staff the jail. These reports confirm what we already knew—that despite the shiny new facility, our community members remain unsafe and at risk of violence and death in the sheriff’s custody.

 

Our thoughts, in short:

We share Judge Africk and the monitoring team’s frustration at the continued violence and mis-management of the jail; this frustration is long overdue. We have known that despite the opening of OJC, little has changed in the way OPSO runs the jail, and the lives of our community members who are locked up continue to be endangered every minute that OPSO fails in their duty to protect them from harm and violence.

We are disappointed that so much emphasis during the hearings was placed on the financial costs of these hearings, rather than on the human cost to our community, and are disappointed that our elected officials do little more than point fingers to address our jail crisis. It’s time our elected officials put our community, not their careers, first.

Next Week's Hearings

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.

 

Landrieu's Letter to Jindal is a Good Start, But Doesn't Go Far Enough

Last week, local news media reported that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants state inmates out of the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). In a letter to Governor Bobby Jindal, Landrieu asked the Governor to remove the approximately 380 Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoners currently doing time at OPP. The mayor wrote, “At this time it is clear that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office needs to dedicate all its energy and resources to their primary mission, which is to safely and constitutionally house local prisoners.” The importance of this letter lies in the ongoing debates about the future of OPP, as well as criminal justice in Orleans Parish in general. For example, as we write, the Sheriff’s Office continues to defy even the most basic requirements of the ongoing federal consent decree. Furthermore, the construction of a new, $145 million jail on Perdido Street has become a stubborn pursuit by Sheriff Marlin Gusman to house as many prisoners as possible. While the City Council unanimously passed a 2011 mandate capping the new prison at 1,438 beds, the Sheriff is now seeking an additional facility, or Phase III, to house acutely mentally ill inmates (he failed to equip the first housing facility to accommodate these prisoners). Such a building, of course, would include room for general population inmates and put the new OPP over the original bed limit.

Because the parish’s current jail remains a human rights catastrophe, and because Gusman still attempts to justify the construction of Phase III on the backs of our community’s most vulnerable inmates, Landrieu’s letter to the Governor resonates deeply with those of us who wish to hold Gusman to the original 1,438 bed cap. Removing DOC prisoners, as well as 65 Plaquemines Parish inmates, would lower the current OPP population. Less prisoners would, in theory, go a long way in alleviating the current problems identified in the consent decree. Furthermore, less prisoners would, in theory, mitigate the need for Phase III. As the City Council continues to argue, Gusman can retrofit the current Phase II facility to accommodate the acutely mentally ill without a new building. Less inmates, in other words, would enable the Sheriff’s Office to, in Landrieu’s words, “safely and constitutionally house local prisoners.”

But Sheriff Gusman sees things differently. In response to the letter the mayor sent to Jindal, Gusman penned a letter to the New Orleans Advocate claiming that Landriew’s request is “misguided and, if implemented, would have adverse effects on public safety and an immediate increase in costs.” First, Gusman warns that removing DOC prisoners would eliminate a successful state-funded re-entry program. Gusman writes:

Eliminating a well-established and successful re-entry program increases the likelihood that — without the program — released inmates would re-offend, thereby creating and prolonging a cycle of recidivism and adding to the cost of re-arrest, prosecution and ultimately re-incarceration. The program actually saves the city more than $1 million annually.

On face value, this is a plausible claim. Few advocates of criminal justice reform would argue against successful re-entry programs.

However, we must consider the source of this claim, coming as it is from a man who also exploits the real needs of the mentally ill to justify building a larger jail.

The remainder, and vast majority, of Gusman’s response to Landrieu betrays the cynicism that underlies his espoused concerns for the incarcerated. He is, at the end of the day, worried about his bottom line.

Giving up DOC prisoners would require Gusman to hire community members to work in the OPP kitchen, as opposed to the far cheaper alternative of forced inmate labor. The sheriff also warns that losing DOC inmates would deny “the Coroner’s Office and other public agencies” state-subsidized labor that protects them from having to pay standard wages to unincarcerated citizens. Gusman adds, “Community service workers pick up trash after football games. They are part of cleanup crews after Mardi Gras parades and they set up/break down tents for numerous community organizations, helping to lower their costs.” Housing DOC prisoners, in other words, allows key sectors of the city and parish to go about their business on the cheap.

A cost-effective Mardi Gras depends on it.

The history of incarceration in the United States, especially in southern states like Louisiana, is one of forced labor. After the end of slavery and the collapse of Reconstruction, southern states adopted convict leasing programs that allowed employers, including plantation owners, to rent predominantly black prisoner labor on the cheap. The result — and intention — was a criminal justice system that reproduced the conditions of involuntary servitude for black Americans. Given that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country (and, therefore, the world), and a profoundly racially-lopsided one at that, these troubling parallels to chattel slavery continue.

Gusman’s dream, in other words, is the perpetuation of our racial nightmares.

The sheriff’s desire to retain DOC inmates and subvert the current 1,438 bed limit is also symptomatic of an entrenched defect in the Louisiana criminal justice system as a whole. Since the early 1990s, when the state prison system was under a federal court order to reduce its population, the Department of Corrections began sending inmates to parish prisons and paying sheriffs to take them. While rural jails benefit the most from this system, which allows them to collect state revenue and inmates, while spending relatively little of the money on the needs of those they imprison, larger parishes like Orleans also rake in state cash for taking DOC prisoners. Gusman draws on FEMA and city money to build a larger jail, while he, by his own admission, stands to save money by continuing to accept DOC inmates. This is a sinister web of financial interests benefiting from the mass incarceration of primarily black bodies and exploitation of their forced labor.

All of this is worth remembering when Gusman claims to act out of concern for taxpayers and the mentally ill.

While Landrieu’s letter, and the City Council’s continued resistance to Phase III are welcome developments in this ongoing drama, advocates for criminal justice reform in Orleans Parish should not rely on city officials for the answers. New Orleans remains a profoundly unequal city, rife with gross economic disparities, racial segregation, racist law enforcement, and persistent gentrification. All of these are key drivers of mass incarceration.

Furthermore, the question of how the parish and state should confine the mentally ill side-steps the more fundamental question of if we should incarcerate them in the first place. America’s jails and prisons are its largest de-facto mental health facilities. Incarceration only exacerbates mental illness, driving the incarcerated to deeper despair and increases the likelihood they will harm themselves or others.

We should be seeking new ways to care for our mentally ill neighbors, not debating the nuances of how we cage them.

Thus, while the present feud between Mayor Landrieu and Sheriff Gusman provides important openings for the fight against mass incarceration, we should not mistake Landrieu for an ally in this fight. A reversal of our city and parish’s shameful reputation for incarceration will depend on the imagination, efforts, and leadership of ordinary citizens working to protect their communities.

Take Back the Land: A Call To Action Community Forum July 7, 2014

The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) will hold a community forum on Tuesday July 8 at 6:30 pm at the First Unitarian Universalist Church at 2903 Jefferson (@ Claiborne). The forum will focus on discussion of the best use for a lot of land at 2900 Perdido. The land is owned by the city, and located between the kitchen and the new 1438-bed jail facility being built by the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office.

 

After a brief presentation about the lot, OPPRC has invited over a dozen community groups to share their dreams and visions of how the site could be used in a way that would help make New Orleans a safer, healthier, and more just community. Open mic time will also be included for attendees at the forum to share their own ideas or comment on what has been shared by others.

Take Back The Land OPPRC July 2014

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has long held plans to build a so-called Phase III building on the 2900 Perdido site; these plans for additional inmate beds were documented in recent court filings. This is despite a 2011 City Ordinance advocated for by OPPRC and other community groups that limited the size of the new jail being constructed to 1438 beds and required that the new facility be built to accommodate the needs of all inmates. The Ordinance was passed unanimously by City Council. All City Councilpersons have been invited to attend Tuesday's forum and some have already confirmed their participation.

 

OPPRC has argued for a cap on prison beds because prisons do not make a community safe but are instead themselves criminogenic, causally linked to violence and crime on New Orleans streets. If there are more beds to fill, the police and Sheriff will fill them and continue the trend of incarcerating and imprisoning mass amounts of people, perpetuating a country-wide epidemic, of which New Orleans is the epicenter. OPPRC argues that instead of building more beds, money that the city saves through reducing the size of the jail should be used for funding employment creation and job training programs, libraries, community centers, mental health and substance abuse services, after school programs, youth and recreation programs, cultural activities and economic development opportunities, etc. all things proven to be more effective in creating safer communities and families. Tuesday's forum will provide an opportunity for the community to dream about these alternatives to more prison beds.

 

Transportation and childcare will be available for attendees of Tuesday night's forum. For more information, contact oppreform@gmail.com or call 504-264-2189.


You can RSVP via facebook here:  https://www.facebook.com/events/592985364149635/

 

Call for Urgent Action in response to Dangerous Conditions at OPP

ACTION ALERT ** ACTION ALERT ** ACTION ALERT **

We invite all those troubled by the horribly dangerous conditions at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) to join with OPPRC this Wednesday March 26 at 10 am at the intersection of Tulane & Broad.

When? Wednesday March 26 at 10 am

Where? Tulane & Broad

Why?

  • Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) continues to be an inhumane, unconstitutional and life threatening environment for people who find themselves housed there, as well as for those who work there. The first report of the federal monitoring team found that inmates in OPP “continue to experience severe problems with shoddy medical care, violence and a general attitude of apathy toward their grievances.” There have been 25 in-custody deaths in OPP since 2009. Up to 73 inmates a month are sent to the emergency room due to conditions at the jail, including for lacerations/punctures, fractures/dislocations, trauma, mental health crises, broken bones and sexual assault.
  • OPPRC released an open letter to the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee over a week ago calling for the Committee to hold a hearing to determine steps which the city can take to immediately address the current crisis in OPP. We have yet to receive any response to our letter. You can see the full open letter here.
  • Yet another individual has died in custody since the release of OPPRC's open letter, highlighting that an urgent response is a life and death matter! The death occurred following a fight between prisoners in the jail's temporary housing unit known as "the tents," and it has yet to be revealed whether there were any deputies in the tent at the time of the fight.

What? Join with OPPRC and others in New Orleans to demand urgent action to address the human rights crisis at OPP. Wear red or black if you are able

For more information, contact: Norris Henderson @ 504.453.4819.

An Open Letter from Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition to Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Dear Mayor Landrieu: We are deeply disappointed to learn that you have gone on record advocating for a change to the 2011 City ordinance which capped the number of beds at Orleans Parish Prison to 1438, and that you support plans to build an additional jail facility with more beds. We feared that might be your position when the Lens reported last Spring that your Deputy Mayor was in conversations with the Sheriff regarding plans for another building, but we had hoped you might be convinced otherwise.

We were concerned when you resisted the consent decrees which have resulted from the efforts of the Justice Department to bring our police and jail into compliance with constitutional requirements. When you raised concerns about other public needs that might need to be sacrificed if we spent so much on the jail, we thought that at least this might mean that you would also resist the strain on the budget that would result from building yet another facility which the city will then be responsible to fund in terms of staffing, maintenance, etc. We were disappointed to find that while you don't feel the city can afford the expense of making its police and jail safe and constitutional, it can afford the cost of locking up more of its people than any other city in this country and worldwide.

When we met with you earlier this summer, you said you shared our goal of ending New Orleans' high rate of incarceration. You listed a number of ways in which your office has been supportive of reducing the number of individuals housed in OPP, such as support for pre-trial services and supporting the end of housing Department of Corrections prisoners in the city jail. We called on you for even greater leadership. While we are understand that there are multiple actors responsible for who ends up in jail, we believe you can do more:

  •  Pledge your renewed support for the 1438 cap –Demand an objective investigation into whether the new facility can be retrofitted in order to provide for mental health needs and special populations. If human rights concerns make this impossible at this juncture and another facility is built, the total bed count should not go above 1438.
  • Release individuals who do not need to be held in jail --Use the executive power of the Mayor's office to declare the jail a state of emergency, thus triggering the release of all those detainees who would be set free in the event of a Category 3 hurricane in the Gulf. These people being held for minor charges simply because they are too poor to pay bond are being needlessly endangered and tens of thousands of the city's very limited dollars are being used to keep them in horrid conditions which put their lives at risk and violate their constitutional rights.
  • Budget for reform –Submit a budget that fully funds the Pretrial Services program and eliminates the per diem funding structure for the jail. Invest in the establishment of community based reentry, drug treatment, and mental health services in in accord with best practices rather than paying to jail these populations.
  • Lead the criminal justice system in the full implementation of needed reforms: Use the full extent of your influence with other actors in the criminal justice system to encourage reforms that will reduce our incarceration rate, for example: (1) Direct the police to stop overcharging those arrested for minor offenses; (2) Encourage the District Attorney's Office to exercise their discretion to reduce inflated charges; (3) Advocate for sentencing reform in Baton Rouge and encourage the District Attorney and the Sheriff to be a voice in the DA's and Sheriff Associations calling for support for these needed reforms; (4) Demand that judges, including those in municipal court, fully implement the Pretrial Services program.

Mass incarceration is not merely a political issue; it's more importantly a human reality that destroys people's lives. Because we love this city and its people, we can't give up on this matter. We hope that as we move forward, we will be able to count you as an ally in this work.