The New Orleans city planning commission will hold a public hearing on a plan to expand the city’s jail capacity on Tuesday, October 8, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. The commission makes recommendations to the City Council on land-use proposals.
The plan to expand the Orleans Justice Center was submitted by Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office in August and comes a result of a federal judge’s ruling ordering the city to renovate the Temporary Detention Center to house prisoners who are mentally ill. According to a 2018 report, one in three Orleans Parish inmates takes medication for addiction and mental illness. However, in addition to moving mentally ill inmates to the renovated area, the current proposal would also increase the city jail’s population capacity from 1,438 beds to 1,731 beds.
Advocates say that this plan will only lead to greater incarceration rates. In an interview with The Appeal, Loyola University law professor Andrea Armstrong said that previous jail expansions weren’t effective at improving conditions at the jail. “What the history of incarceration in New Orleans shows is that new facilities haven’t always resulted in significant improvement in the conditions in which we incarcerate people,” she said. Instead, Armstrong suggests that the city should focus on hiring and training. “If the goal is to make those conditions constitutionally adequate, then the plan to achieve that goal has to be more than a new building.”
The city has struggled with how to help prisoners who have mental health conditions. In the first two months of 2019, there were 28 suicide attempts inside the jail. Rather than adding new beds, advocates say that prisoners with mental health issues should be sent to treatment facilities. According to Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, the jail expansion would “would mean that New Orleans has decided to take a step back” from its progress in lowering its rate of incarceration.
In 2016, New Orleans was given a $1.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to implement initiatives to reduce its average daily jail population from 1,617 to 1,277 by mid-2019 as part of the Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. According to the city, the success in reducing the jail population has been largely due to improved policies within the jail, changes in policing, and better pretrial release efforts. According to Louisiana State University, New Orleans is also set to experience a 30 percent drop in murders in addition to an overall drop in the number of violent crimes.
The public hearing on this issue will take place at 1:30 p.m. October 8, 2019, in the City Council Chambers.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of Big Easy Magazine. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_