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Controversial New Orleans jail expansion to be discussed in public hearing

Orleans Justice Center
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
Orleans Justice Center

The New Orleans City Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the future plans to build phase III of Orleans Justice Center, the controversial expansion of the New Orleans jail that has been opposed by criminal justice advocates and some city officials who have protested and even attempted to halt the project.

Commissioners are to cast a non-binding vote on the construction project that, if built, would add 89 beds dedicated to detainees with acute and sub-acute mental health needs and some medical needs. The commission’s vote would either endorse or disapprove the project, which would serve as a recommendation to the City Council, the body who ultimately decides whether or not to move forward with construction.

On Friday, Commission staff recommended that zoning changes, which will allow the facility to be built, be approved.

“Staff recognizes the legitimate concerns surrounding the merits of this application — including incarceration of individuals with mental health conditions, the $51 million price tag … and what is allowable under the federal consent decree,” a report from the commission released Friday said.

Staffers acknowledged the narrow scope that they had to work within when making the recommendation for zoning changes. Tasked with examining potential impacts to parking, traffic, noise and the environment that a new construction would cause, the commission found that building the new space, which would be located between the already existing Orleans Justice Center facilities and the jail’s kitchen and warehouse, “would not result in significant new impacts or an intensification of the current use.”

Phase III is part of a lengthy legal battle over steps that the city must take to ensure that the Orleans Justice Center is in compliance with a federal consent decree as it pertains to mental health care. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has long supported the expansion, as has the United States Department of Justice.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who presides over the litigation, has ruled several times that the city must go forward with building the new facility. When the city halted construction in June 2020, a magistrate judge recommended that the city’s request to stop construction be denied a few months later in December.

Africk upheld that recommendation in January and again in July after Mayor LaToya Cantrell attempted to have the project stalled until the court could rule on an appeal of the January decision.

Cantrell’s administration has questioned the need for Phase III and called the construction project too costly.

To pay for the $51 million price tag, $39 million would come from FEMA funding set aside after Hurricane Katrina. State law also requires the city to fund jail operations. While the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office manages the jail, the City of New Orleans would foot the rest of the bill for the Phase III facility.

The city supports an option to “retrofit” space in the current jail building instead of going through with constructing Phase III. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and other advocacy groups have endorsed this option, and in July, New Orleans City Council voted to have the City Planning Commission study that option.

The cost of that option, they determined, would come out to around $9 million.

Phase III was approved during former Mayor Mitch Landreau’s administration. Since then, the city has argued that there is no longer a need for the facility, as mental health care in New Orleans has improved and the jail population is on the decline.

Criminal justice advocates say that the new facility would ultimately result in more people and more vulnerable populations behind bars. There have been multiple protests held against the jail expansion, including one on Saturday, when the OPPRC and other groups held a traditional jazz funeral for the plan, in hopes that the idea of building a new jail facility will finally be killed.

OPPRC, who has been working on a campaign called Help Not Handcuffs to build a non-police task force that can respond to 911 calls that involve people in mental health crises, argues that the new facility’s cost would “jeopardize the city’s opportunities for real solutions,” like providing mental health care in non-carceral settings.

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed the report from City Planning Commission staff to commissioners.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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