Orleans Justice Center

“Medieval at best” – multiple groups criticize proposed wing for NOLA prison

By Michael Perlstein

Source: WWL-TV

July 12, 2023

NEW ORLEANS — Following a series of stories by WWL-TV over the controversial design proposed for a new mental health wing for mentally ill inmates at the city’s jail, several groups have added their opposition to the so-called Phase III building plan.

More than a dozen people and organizations aired their concerns at a City Council committee hearing Wednesday, referring to the circular panopticon design – in which inmates would be housed in a circle around a command center – in terms such as “hellscape” and “dystopian nightmare.”

“It’s a very disturbing area. There’s only one left in the United States and that’s only there for historic reasons,” James Austin testified in his formal presentation to the council.

The current panopticon plan, ordered under a 10-year-old federal consent decree to improve conditions for inmates, has not been used in the United States since Illinois closed its Stateville Prison panopticon building in 2016.

“There’s nobody who wants to live in a panopticon, some dystopian nightmare. We all saw the images,” Bruce Reily, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE, an advocacy organization for the current and formerly incarcerated.

The Vera Institute, a national criminal justice reform organization issued a statement Wednesday that referred to the design as “the draconian panopticon known as Phase III.”

“The crisis in the Orleans Justice Center is likely to be exacerbated by adding another facility that is poorly designed and will struggle to be appropriately staffed,” the group wrote.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council have been voicing their concerns over the plan for several years. Sheriff Susan Hutson made her opposition to Phase III a key platform in her upset election victory over previous Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

“How could we ever be for something that is not only inhumane, but something that is medieval at best?” said District E Councilman Oliver Thomas, who chairs the criminal justice committee.

The Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report asking for a review of the design and its rising costs, now estimated at more than $2 million dollars a cell for about 56 cells.

“Such a review is necessary to ensure the safety and security of those in custody and the effective use of city funds,” testified Becky Mowbray, BGR’s president and CEO.

Reily said VOTE was allowed inside the jail this week to conduct a survey of inmates on the issue and their representation by the MacArthur Justice Center, the non-profit group who filed the lawsuit that led to the consent decree and who still represents the inmates.

Reily said the vast majority of inmates didn’t even know were represented in the consent decree by the MacArthur Justice Center, much less the Phase III plans.

“That’s a problem if the lawyers are out here trying to say what the people on the inside want,” Reily said.

At a recent court hearing, Emily Washington, lead consent decree attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, re-iterated the group’s support for Phase III as designed. WWL-TV reached out to Washington and MacArthur for comment, but have not received a response.

City Council President J.P. Morrell suggested at Wednesday hearing that the plaintiff’s attorneys, which includes the U.S. Department of Justice, have likely hardened their positions after years of bitter litigation.

“The Justice Department and MacArthur want to build an overly expensive glass prison hellscape to house the mentally ill because the lawsuits that have gone on for over a decade have angered them.”

Prominent New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff, who assembled the panel who spoke before the council, has taken a lead role in opposing the panopticon design. He said he favors expanding the sheriff’s existing housing for the mentally ill, something that could be accomplished for $16 million instead of the current proposed price tag for Phase III of more than $100 million.

“Bring the judge over there.,” Kabacoff pleaded. “Have him take a look with his own eyes. Don’t listen to a plaintiff who says my client wants to live in a panopticon. Or be double-celled. I can’t imagine that’s the case.”

Thomas said the proposal is the “goofiest” thing he’s ever seen in his decades working in government.

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