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 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!

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.