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.

OPPRC Calls For Urgent Action in Response to Jail Conditions

OPPRC members and supporters gathered today at Tulane & Broad, then walked several blocks to the OPP Intake & Processing Center.  We called for a moratorium on admissions to a facility where conditions continue to be inhumane, unconstitutional and life-threatening, and we renewed our call for Mayor Landrieu to declare the jail in a state of emergency, thus triggering the release of persons held for minor, non-violent crimes.

We were joined by the family of Willie Lee, the most recent person to die while under custody of OPP. Lee's mother, Margie Lee Hulitt spoke at the protest about the death of her son, including how she was not notified of his death until Sunday evening (close to a day after he died) and still has not been allowed to see his body.  See video here.

The City needs to find other alternatives rather than continuing to house people in an unsafe and violent jail.  We urged Susan Guidry and other members of the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee to take urgent action in an open letter that we released on March 13, 2014. Within ten days of the letter's release another individual died in custody following a fight between prisoners in the jail's temporary housing unit known as "the tents."

The consent decree has not resulted in significant improvement in the conditions in the jail, and 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, and up to 73 inmates a month are sent to the emergency room.

Many of the people currently in OPP pose zero risk to public safety- as evidenced by the fact that they would simply be released under hurricane evacuation conditions. Instead, they are held in OPP, on taxpayer’s money, where they are in danger of being beaten, raped, stabbed, or possibly even killed in the jail.  We cannot in good conscience hold people subject to this dehumanizing violence. The City is responsible for their safety. The Mayor has the responsibility to stop this bloodshed.

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.

New Orleans Needs Real Reform, Not a Larger Jail

Note:  If you haven't yet made calls to the Mayor or your Councilpersons, it's not too late!  More info here. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

September 3, 2013

Contact: Norris Henderson 504-453-4819

STATEMENT FROM ORLEANS PARISH PRISON REFORM COALITION

New Orleans Needs Real Reform, Not a Larger Jail

Last week, Mayor Landrieu and Sheriff Gusman announced their intent to add an additional building to the planned construction of the new jail - a move that violates both a 2011 City Council ordinance and the public’s trust. As our elected officials surely remember, that ordinance, which passed unanimously in City Council with an outpouring of public support, limits the number of beds in the new jail facility to 1,438. As members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) we oppose the building of any additional jail beds beyond the agreed-upon 1,438 cap. To increase the size of the jail at this moment would not only be a blatant disregard of the democratic process, it would be a capitulation to the kind of racialized fear-mongering that has held this city hostage for far too long.

To be clear: the rate at which the city of New Orleans incarcerates is astronomically higher than any other place on earth. To fill a 1,438 bed jail, New Orleans would still need to incarcerate at a rate of double the national average in a country widely agreed to suffer from a crisis of over-incarceration. Although the city is proposing to use FEMA dollars to build the additional facility, the cost of maintaining it indefinitely into the future is one that will fall on taxpayers for generations to come.

Not only is incarceration at these rates unnecessary and costly to the city, it is also dangerous. In a report released on August 29th, the Metropolitan Crime Commission used a current population snapshot to suggest that the new jail will need to be at least 2,200 beds to serve New Orleans’ needs. By treating the size of the prisoner population as fixed, the report forecloses meaningful discussion of reforming the wasteful and inhumane practices that drive up the population. Moreover, the report implies that the population currently incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is made up primarily of violent offenders who, if released, would be a danger to public safety. This is absolutely and unequivocally false. In reality, the vast majority of OPP prisoners are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of any crime. Of those, many are charged with minor offenses such as drug possession. To paint young men convicted of marijuana possession as rapists and murderers is a deception that is not simply irresponsible: it costs lives.

Our city continues to incarcerate people not based on any danger they pose to the community, but based on their inability to pay bond. This leads to the disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color. About 84 percent of those incarcerated in New Orleans are African Americans. The average length of time spent waiting for trial is 69 days for African Americans and 38 days for whites.

It is long past time our city’s governing officials committed to implementing the reforms needed to responsibly address the current crisis. While the current population at OPP is greater than the 1,438 projected by expert researchers during the planning of new construction, this in no way an indication that we need a bigger jail. Rather, it is a reminder that our city’s criminal justice agencies must be held accountable to implementing policies that will reduce the jail population and increase public safety. Instead of considering the construction of new jail facilities, we urge the Mayor and City Council to consider the current practices of the courts, police, and District Attorney, and to make policy changes that promote pretrial release, diversion, and treatment over arrest and incarceration. We demand that the city fully fund the Pretrial Services program and that our judges be held accountable to making use of that program to make responsible and safe bond decisions. We also urge the city to invest in community-based treatment for people struggling with substance use and mental health issues, rather than building more jail beds for them.

We understand that the road to meaningful reform is long and hard, but we must begin the journey in earnest. Building a larger jail will not solve our city’s problems. Let’s start to talk about what will. As a contribution to that conversation, OPPRC plans to issue an open letter to Mitch Landrieu later this week.

 

 

 

OPPRC Action Alert -- Support the 1438 cap!

Raising our voices (again) in support of the 1438 cap on beds at OPP

Recent media reports and court filings reveal that the Sheriff and Mayor are coming together to advocate that the City change or ignore the 2011 City ordinance that capped the number of beds in Orleans Parish Prison to 1438. Hundreds of community members  packed the City Council chambers, signed petitions, called their councilpersons, etc. in order to get the 1438 cap included in the ordinance approving construction of a new jail building.  Now, we we need to call on you again to stand with us in making sure that our voices are not blatantly ignored.

The city does not need to incarcerate more people to properly care for the people it does incarcerate. In fact, the opposite is the case. It is the responsibility of our Mayor and City Council to ensure a safe and humane jail facility is built without breaking the promises they made to cap the jail's size.

Please contact the Mayor, City Councilpersons, and both at-large Councilpersons to remind them of the importance of the beds being capped at 1438 and to let tell them know that you do not support amending the ordinance to increase the number of beds in the jail beyond that number. Here are phone numbers and emails for the City Councilpersons and the Mayor:

Note: If you aren't sure of your Council district, City Council maps are available here and your ward and precinct #'s are here

What are the advantages of limiting the number of jail beds in Orleans Parish Prison to no more than 1438?

 Currently, Orleans Parish is the national leader in jailing its people. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other city in the US. Even if New Orleans reaches a population of 400,000, the proposed cap of 1438 would still leave us at 43.8% more beds than the national average per capita jail population rate.

 People are being locked up unnecessarily. Many thousands of people who pose little or no public safety risk continue to be arrested and incarcerated for minor offenses, including an inability to pay court costs. Mass incarceration increases social problems including disenfranchisement and despair in formerly incarcerated persons, their families and their communities. Incarceration puts employment and housing at risk, thus resulting in instability and vulnerability. Communities of color are especially impacted by mass incarceration due to documented racial disparities in our prison system.

Mass incarceration diverts public funds from other uses that have been proven more effective at creating a safe community including mental health & drug rehab programs, job training, libraries, community centers, after school programs, youth and recreation programs, affordable housing, cultural activities and economic development opportunities. Every one-bed reduction in OPP saves the city approx $11,900 in operating expenses for the jail. Every dollar that it takes to operate the jail comes from taxpayers. Our high incarceration rate results in fewer breadwinners in our community, fewer tax dollars coming into our city, and greater need for services and support for the families and loved ones of people inside.

 Capping the beds at OPP will work in support of the reforms that are currently being implemented by various actors in the criminal justice system including the police, the district attorney's office, etc. Orleans Parish also needs to fully implement effective Pre-Trial Services & policies like using summons as an alternative to pretrial detention. Building more beds will only undermine these need reforms.

Together we can make sure that New Orleans will no longer be the incarceration capitol of the world!

OPPRC Urges Mayor to Evacuate OPP Now!

close up evacuate oppMembers of Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) presented Mayor Mitchell Landrieu with a letter today urging him to declare the jail a state of emergency, thus triggering the release of people being held in Orleans Parish Prison who would also be released in the event of a hurricane. The letter was presented to Mayor Landrieu during a city press conference marking the start of hurricane season at the Port of New Orleans. While presenting the Mayor with the letter outlining the need for emergency release, OPPRC members and supporters formed a circle and sang and prayed for the safety and well being of all of those being held in the jail.  An altar at the center of the circle remembered all those whose lives have been lost in OPP.  There have been 41 deaths at Orleans Parish Prison in the last eight years. Last year, at least 700 assaults and 32 stabbings occurred at OPP. An average of 50 to 60 jail inmates are rushed to the hospital each month.

“Many of the people currently in OPP are charged with minor, non-violent crimes and pose zero risk to public safety- as evidenced by the fact that they would simply be released under hurricane evacuation conditions. Instead, they are held in OPP, on taxpayer’s money, where they are in danger of being beaten, raped, stabbed, or possibly even killed in the jail,” said Yvette Thierry. “We cannot in good conscience hold people subject to this dehumanizing violence. The City is responsible for their safety. The Mayor has the responsibility to stop this bloodshed.”

The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition is a diverse coalition of community organizations and concerned individuals who have been campaigning since 2004 to make OPP a smaller, safer, and more humane jail. In 2011, OPPRC held two community forums with Department of Justice officials in attendance. OPPRC also campaigned against a proposed expansion of OPP using FEMA money and was successful in urging City Council to pass an ordinance in February 2011 in support of a 1438 bed cap on the size of the jail. The ordinance included a requirement that all current buildings must be decommissioned and demolished after completion of the new facility. OPPRC is also working to end the per diem funding at the jail which offers a perverse incentive to incarcerate more people in a city that already incarcerates more people per capita than any other place in the world.

Check out the materials included in the press packet for this event.

Mayor Plays Political Games at Our Peril

STATEMENT FROM ORLEANS PARISH PRISON REFORM COALITION  April 18, 2013Mayor Plays Political Games at Our Peril

We, the members of Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) are appalled by the latest political theatrics of our elected officials with regard to the deadly conditions in Orleans Parish Prison. OPP is in crisis, and has been for more than 30 years. The impending Consent Decree would force the City *and* the Sheriff to finally do the right thing and make the changes necessary to ensure the safety of staff and inmates in a facility that now boasts over 700 assaults each year. However, instead of supporting the consent decree, our Mayor and his attorneys have engaged in the worst kind of hypocrisy, denying that conditions in OPP are unconstitutional while at the same time, claiming that things are so bad that the court should place the jail in federal receivership. The political chess game which is playing out in both the media and in U.S. District Court is a slap in the faces of the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters incarcerated in OPP, and the families of the 41 people who have died there in the last 8 years. It is also a threat to all New Orleanians, because we are all made unsafe by our dehumanizing, unconstitutional jail.

“Knowing the personal stories of young people, many of them gay and transgender, who have been raped in OPP, set on fire, had their jaws broken, and been charged with attempted escape for running from their attackers- we are outraged that the City is stalling reforms in OPP. We must make immediate changes to all the institutions that are criminalizing and brutalizing our most vulnerable New Orleanians,” said Milan Alexander, Youth Organizer for BreakOUT! and OPPRC member.

Mayor Landrieu’s request for a receivership last week is clearly a red herring, intended to drag out the Consent Decree process and avoid both financial and political responsibility. During his entire administration, the Mayor has had ample opportunity to take action on the appalling conditions at OPP.* In September 2010, OPPRC organized over 300 people who contributed to the cost of taking out a full page advertisement in the Times-Picayune  demanding that the City’s leaders take responsibility and adopt two very basic reforms — ending the per diem and building a smaller capacity jail — which would improve the situation in OPP. Recognizing the fallacy of arresting our way to public safety, the City Council unanimously voted in February of 2011 to cap new jail construction at 1,438 beds. In November of that same year, OPPRC delivered a petition with over 2,000 signatures calling upon the Mayor to put an end to the Sheriff’s per diem funding system, which serves as a perverse incentive to incarcerate, and to support the 1,438 bed cap.

Instead of endorsing these measures, the Mayor’s office continued private email conversations with Sheriff Gusman to build additional beds and proposed budgets to the council in 2011 and again in 2012 that continued to include per diem funding for the jail. Once again, in 2012, prompted by growing reports of rape and assaults in OPP, concerned residents gathered outside of City Hall to protest Mayor’s apparent indifference and to remind him of his responsibility to ensure that city funds were not subsidizing violations of fundamental human rights. By this point, it had been sufficiently documented that conditions at OPP were so dangerous that all federal inmates were ordered removed. Once again, the Mayor did nothing.

"I voted for Mayor Landrieu and generally I support him. But his misguided efforts to drive a wedge in this troubled city between "good" folks and the folks in OPP concern me greatly,” said Reverend Melanie Morel-Ensminger, Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans & North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society. “As a person of faith, as a white person striving to be antiracist, as a proud life-long New Orleanian, I say those inside OPP *are* New Orleanians, our brothers and sisters, deserving decent care and humane treatment, no matter what they are accused or convicted of."

The Consent Decree represents countless hours of community commitment to improve conditions at OPP, and is the first step for any meaningful reform. But without admission of wrongdoing, it will only be a piece of paper. The reams of legal briefings filed by the Mayor and Sheriff abdicating responsibility and pointing fingers at each other only prolongs the suffering of fellow New Orleanians incarcerated there. This is also true of the racially charged language being exchanged by our elected officials.

OPPRC would like to make it clear that jail size, funding, and conditions are deeply and fundamentally racial. Subhuman conditions at OPP are intimately tied to the value that we as a city assign to African American life, and our staggering incarceration rate is fundamentally about our society’s fear of Black people. Whether Black or White, when public officials act with indifference for the harm being done to Black people, we must ask ourselves whose interests they serve. Racial justice demands more of both the Mayor and of the Sheriff.

We are in a state of perpetual and untenable crisis. In terms familiar to New Orleanians, the storm at OPP has escalated to “category five” status. It’s time to evacuate.

With a renewed sense of urgency we demand that persons held on non-violent charges — who, by law, would be set free in the event that a Category 3 hurricane were in the Gulf — be immediately released from Orleans Parish Prison. These individuals pose no threat to the community, but conditions in the jail do pose a significant threat to their lives.

“We, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, have been pushing for a safer, smaller, more humane jail since 2004. We cannot wait any longer!”

*The Department of Justice published its report on Conditions in OPP in September of 2009.