New Orleans Activists Clash With Sheriff Over Jail Expansion

New Orleans — Back in 2010, New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman asked the city government for a 6,000-bed jail to replace buildings damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The proposal faced backlash in a city notorious for the conditions in its jail and the brutality of its criminal legal system. In 2015, a new jail opened with only 1,438 beds.

Gusman continues to push for a bigger jail, and the backlash continues. After receiving a proposal from Gusman earlier this year that would have significantly increased the number of people he could incarcerate, the New Orleans City Council on Wednesday issued a preliminary vote on a compromise package meant to satisfy both the sheriff and activists who have been pushing to reduce the jail population. The council is scheduled to cast a final vote next month.

The compromise ordinance places a 1,250 cap on the number of people the jail can hold at any time, but a controversial satellite known as the Temporary Detention Center would continue to operate for years after it was slated to shut down. The Temporary Detention Center is three squat, metal-walled structures next to a highway that were originally designed to cage up to 800 people as the city rebuilt itself in the decade following Hurricane Katrina. Under the “compromise” ordinance, these “temporary” structures will serve as a jail for people living with mental illness until a new facility is built for them, and will also house state prisoners in a work-release program indefinitely.

Currently, about 25 people living with mental illness are caged awaiting trial in a state prison an hour away, but the city’s contract with the prison expires next year. The Orleans Justice Center, as the city jail is known, does not have the facilities required to house them, such as “suicide-resistant” cells, and a federal judge ordered the city to fix the problem six years ago. Gusman now wants to retrofit the Temporary Detention Center to house these defendants while he builds a new special-needs building that costs millions of dollars.

“I am not convinced of the constitutionality of using [the Temporary Detention Center],” said Will Snowden, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s New Orleans office, in an interview.

Meanwhile, movements around the country are working for the release of people like those the city plans to incarcerate in the “temporary” jail — people who are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty of a crime. These campaigns to end money bail and dramatically reduce pretrial incarceration are on the rise in cities nationwide, including New Orleans, where activists question why the city’s “solution” to the pretrial incarceration of people living with mental illness is moving this group to a different jail.

Tough-on-Crime Politicians Push Back

City council members pitched the compromise as a win for both sides — activists get a cap on the jail population, and Gusman gets a bigger jail. However, Snowden said the cap on the number of people in the jail is different than a cap on available beds. The ordinance does not prevent Gusman from increasing the jail’s capacity by adding more beds and figuring out ways to fill them later. For example, several Louisiana sheriffs signed lucrative contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jail hundreds of asylum seekers and immigrants facing deportation after statewide reforms reduced the number of people serving shorter sentences in local jails.

“All these Louisianans were able to come home, but those spaces have been filled with asylum seekers,” Snowden said.

Activists argue that people living with mental illness should not be incarcerated in the first place, especially in a city with a dearth of affordable housing, a large houseless population and above-average unemployment rates, particularly among Black men. They are asking why the city is spending money on a jail expansion when it could be investing in housing, education and mental health services that could keep people out of jail in the first place.

“We know from doctors and medical professionals that you can’t get mental health care in jail,” said Pastor David Brazil, an activist with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), during a press conference this week. In fact, activists note, jail often gives rise to the trauma and pain that are diagnosed as mental illness.

The compromise in New Orleans reflects a growing number of political conflicts in cities across the country. Jails claim to detain pretrial defendants deemed a “flight risk” or a threat to public safety, but in reality, they often serve as repositories for poor, houseless and mentally ill people unable to make bail or pay court fees. As activists, reformers and a new generation of prosecutors work to reduce mass incarceration in local jails, sheriffs and tough-on-crime politicians are pushing back.

After Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s new district attorney, ordered prosecutors to seek lighter sentences and drop certain low-level criminal charges last year, U.S. Attorney William McSwain accused him of sparking a “public safety crisis,” according to the Washington Post. McSwain, who works for the Trump administration, is also working to shut down a bold harm reduction program in a Philadelphia neighborhood hit hard by opioid addiction. In San Antonio, the police union lashed out after the district attorney pledged not to prosecute houseless people for criminal trespass.

In New York City, some elected leaders have praised plans to shut down the notorious jail on Rikers Island by 2026, but the city plans on replacing Rikers with new jails elsewhere. Activists are currently pushing the city to invest in mental health care, housing, education and other social programs instead. President Trump, who bills himself as a champion of prosecutors and the police, has attacked prosecutors working to decrease incarceration, accusing them of starting a “dangerous trend” to “advance a political agenda.”

Snowden said Gusman, a Democrat, is probably accustomed to the jail he inherited in 2004, when his office received per diem payments for each prisoner, a practice the city ended five years ago. Thanks to citywide reforms such as the partial decriminalization of marijuana possession and the elimination of money bail for most low-level municipal offenses, along with federal consent decrees hanging over Gusman’s office and the local police department, the number of people jailed in New Orleans has dropped by roughly 80 percent since Gusman took office.

The number of robberies and violent crimes reported in New Orleans has also dropped sharply in recent years, suggesting that incarcerating large numbers of people charged with low-level offenses did not make the city safer.

Yet the Orleans Justice Center continues to be plagued by violence and untimely deaths, including high-profile suicides and overdoses. New Orleans still jails people at a rate 30 percent higher than the national average, including hundreds at any given time who are locked up simply because they are too poor to make bail or pay court fees. Gusman has faced reams of negative headlines for running what is considered one of the nation’s most violent jails but was reelected after his sole challenger was disqualified from the last election.

“If You Make More Beds, They Will Fill Them”

The jail’s population did not drop overnight. Since 2012, as the city worked to overhaul its jail and other buildings damaged by Katrina, a portion of the jail population has been held in the Temporary Detention Center. The “temporary” center was supposed to be shut down in 2017, 18 months after construction of the new jail was complete. That never happened, and today roughly 150 people are confined there.

In March, reform groups and neighborhood organizations sued Gusman over the facility, arguing its continued use violates a city ordinance. Gusman responded with a proposal to change the ordinance and keep the Temporary Detention Center open indefinitely. Snowden said the sheriff is intent on using the detention center to house participants in a work-release and “kitchen trustee” program that provides jobs to people in state prison who are nearing the end of their sentences.

“New Orleans has a lot of problems, but jails don’t make them better,” said Sade Dumas, executive director of the OPPRC, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. “We aren’t going to cage our way to safety.”

Dumas told Truthout that unemployed New Orleanians could be working the jobs provided by the work-release program Gusman wants to expand at the Temporary Detention Center. Sheriffs and prison wardens use work-release programs as a “reward” for good behavior and a supply of cheap labor. Some reformers see benefits in such programs, because they improve morale and prepare incarcerated people for entering the workforce upon release. Incarcerated people are often eager for work, wanting to earn money and have an opportunity to be outside — but that wouldn’t be a concern if they were not locked up in the first place.

Critics liken work-release programs to modern-day “convict leasing,” the post-slavery practice in which chain gangs performed hard labor across the South. Louisiana is littered with former slave plantations and has one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet, and the state’s prison labor programs have come under international scrutiny.

Gusman argues his plan is the most feasible for serving various jail populations, but opponents say the proposal is designed to expand the number of people who can be jailed in New Orleans by making more beds available, reversing years of progress. They argue it would be faster and cheaper to retrofit the current jail with facilities for people with mental health needs, saving money the city can then spend on mental health and housing services that could prevent vulnerable people from landing in jail in the first place.

“We know from history that, if you make more beds, they will fill them,” Brazil said.

New Orleans has been at the forefront of a movement to reform city jails and criminal courts. Federal judges ruled this year that the city’s criminal court has a conflict of interest because it collects revenue from conviction fees and bail payments. The practice has systemically extracted wealth from the city’s working class and poor, and essentially turned the local jail into a debtors’ prison. However, local judges argued that changing the system requires a legislative fix, and lawmakers are currently debating a solution and alternative sources of revenue for the court.

In 2017, bail and conviction fees made up 25 percent of the court’s budget, but today an annual investment of $2.8 million could replace the revenue from fees, according to Vera. In comparison, Vera estimates the new jail building for people with mental health needs will cost $43 million to build and even more to run.

For reformers and abolitionist activists, New Orleans is both a success story and a source of grief and frustration. The effort to decarcerate the Crescent City has attracted national media attention and experts offering bold reforms and high-tech solutions. There is also a fierce grassroots coalition driven by people of color and LGTBQ youth — communities that are disproportionately criminalized on the streets of New Orleans.

Activists hold signs at a press conference and protest against plans to expand the city jail in New Orleans on December 4. A grassroots coalition against expansion is driven by people of color and LGTBQ youth -- communities that are disproportionately criminalized on the streets of New Orleans.
Activists hold signs at a press conference and protest against plans to expand the city jail in New Orleans on December 4, 2019. A grassroots coalition against expansion is driven by people of color and LGTBQ youth — communities that are disproportionately criminalized on the streets of New Orleans.

On the eve of the city council vote, activists and queer youth camped out in the park across the street from City Hall to protest the jail expansion and draw a connection between incarceration and the dire need for affordable housing. They awoke early the next morning to rumors of a police raid — police are known to “sweep” the park and evict houseless campers — so they packed up their tents and began preparing for a showdown in the council’s chambers.

“This is pathetic,” said Ashlee Pintos, a local activist who spoke at the council meeting. “We are standing here in one of the most highly incarcerated places in the world, and y’all are talking about the possibility of keeping a jail open, and think that we should be appeased by a minor concession.”