The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) delivered a selection from over 700 letters written by members to consent decree overseers Judge Lance M. Africk and Magistrate Michael B. North last week, urging them to halt progress on the “Phase III” expansion of the Orleans Parish jail. The 89-bed expansion was originally meant to house inmates with mental health and medical problems. New Orleans stopped design work on the expansion in June, and on June 30th, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell asked that the expansion be “indefinitely suspended” in light of the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. On August 12, the city submitted several alternatives to the Phase III facility program, including an option that would retrofit portions of the current jail. On Thursday, the OPPRC issued a statement in support of this plan.
“There is no need to construct an expensive, new carceral facility to provide the care that Tulane School of Medicine and Wellpath are already delivering within Orleans Parish Prison,” said OPPRC Executive Director Sade Dumas. A recent report released by federally appointed monitors stated that “safety, medical and mental health care” had “made meaningful and noteworthy improvement” since their previous report in January. The monitors found that the jail was at least partially compliant with all 174 provisions of the 2013 federal consent decree for the first time since the decree was issued.
“The OJC [Orleans Justice Center] lacks safe housing for people with acute and chronic medical and mental health problems. It also lacks an adequate number of individual rooms for therapy and sexual and substance dependence care, special cells for suicide watch, and space for family visitation. A retrofit of OJC is necessary and desirable to supply the space to help resolve these shortcomings,” the OPPRC said.
According to last week’s filing, the city is already working on those concerns. Earlier this year, the city was awarded a $2 million MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Grants to further reduce the prison’s inmate population. In addition, that grant is also funding a mental health jail navigator position that will help to further reduce the number of inmates with acute and sub-acute mental illnesses admitted to the prison by up to 20 percent each year.
“Retrofitting OJC is an advocacy-backed solution supported by community input and consistent with legal requirements under the Consent Decree,” OPPRC stated. “It is a solution that is long overdue and should be embraced by the City.”