Orleans Justice Center

Good-government group backs review of costs, design of controversial Orleans jail wing

By Joseph Cranney

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

July 12, 2023

A federal judge should order a fresh review of the proposed design and costs of the controversial expansion to the Orleans Parish jail, even if it’s too late to suspend construction on the estimated $109 million project, an independent policy group said Tuesday.

Sheriff Susan Hutson made a last-ditch effort to shut construction down three weeks ago, insisting in a court filing that the layout of cells in the so-called Phase III expansion is “inhumane,” while also reupping her arguments that the jail could renovate its existing facilities at a fraction of the cost.

In its brief commentary Tuesday, the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research did not weigh in on which plan would work best to improve conditions for mentally ill inmates, one of the key goals of the decade-old consent decree covering the jail that requires various reforms.

But the group said Hutson’s concerns warrant further examination from the court, as “this facility will shape the future performance of the jail and its outcomes for incarcerated persons and taxpayers for decades to come.”

“Such a review is necessary to ensure the safety and security of those in custody and the effective use of city funds,” BGR wrote in a four-page report.

In an at-times contentious hearing at the end of June, U.S. District Magistrate Michael North didn’t see it that way.

North said Hutson’s arguments had “already been rejected by multiple courts” and that they were far too late. A letter to the court signed by a majority of New Orleans City Council members came to similar conclusions.

Hutson is expected to discuss Phase III with the council at a hearing Wednesday morning.

North said groundbreaking on Phase III could come as early as mid-July, but a city spokesperson said Tuesday that construction is pending the council’s allotment of additional funds.

North said it was legal delays on the part of the city that caused the Phase III price tag to balloon from the pre-pandemic estimate of around $45 million. The city had agreed to build the project years ago, but Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration tried to block it in 2020. Last summer, the court ordered that Phase III must be built.

If Hutson tries again to block the project, “the outcome will be the same, and it will be $150 million,” North said.

“So that’s not happening,” North said in a June 28 hearing, after Hutson requested the court shut down Phase III construction. “At least not anywhere in this building.”

Hutson’s concerns, along with the project’s costs, centered around Phase III’s proposed “panopticon” design, which Hutson said was outdated, “inhumane and dangerous.” The design includes all glass cells, so inmates would be in full view of jail staff around the clock.

“Such a lack of privacy among severely mentally ill jail patients undoubtedly will cause further psychological damage and will encourage unhealthy activity and communication among patients,” Hutson’s attorney, John Williams, wrote in a letter outlining her concerns.

In a filing Monday, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the consent-decree lawsuit called Hutson’s motion “a frivolous and dangerous distraction wrapped in the self-righteous cloak of community interest.”

The legal team has said Phase III will help ensure that mentally ill inmates are not housed in large dormitories that are identical to those used for the general population, as has long been the case.

Those units lack adequate counseling resources, the attorneys say, and have mezzanine levels that inmates have used to attempt suicide.

Four people have died at the jail since Hutson took office in May 2022, including a man who leapt to his death from a mezzanine last June.

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