City Council still wrestles with cost of jail reforms

Three years after Michael Hitzman hanged himself in his cell at Orleans Parish Prison, his parents sat in the second row of the New Orleans City Council chamber Tuesday morning, silently observing as the council tried to figure out how much money Sheriff Marlin Gusman needs to provide proper mental health and medical treatment for his prisoners.

James and Pam Hitzman left the chamber unconvinced the council had arrived at a solution.

For years, Gusman has spent an average of $5 per inmate per day on health care expenses, less than half of what the average city jail spends, according to Dr. Sam Gore, the medical director at Orleans Parish Prison.

He estimated he will have to nearly double that figure, to $9.65 per inmate each day, to comply with court-ordered reforms at the jail.

The City Council plans to pass the city’s 2014 budget in just over a week.

That budget must allot enough money to the sheriff to satisfy the federal judge overseeing the sweeping reforms at the jail, long counted among the nation’s most brutal and inhumane.

Yet as Gusman’s office made its third and final appearance before a budget hearing Tuesday, exactly how much the reforms will cost remains unclear.

“We have to come up with a number that both addresses the needs of the jail, covers the costs of the consent decree but does it in a balanced way that looks at all the issues that the city faces in terms of public safety,” said Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer, to the council.

Gusman has asked the council to give him more than $40 million for 2014, including $11.2 million he specifies will go to implementing the consent decree.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has offered him $18 million less, the same $22.1 million he’s operating on this year.

Landrieu’s proposed $504.3 million budget has $4.25 million left unclaimed, and the administration has suggested the council could put that toward the jail reforms.

An expert hired by the city has told the council that the costs of the court-ordered reforms could be largely absorbed by taking other cost-saving measures, such as outsourcing medical services.

Jefferson Parish contracts with a private company for those services, Councilwoman Susan Guidry noted, and the sheriff there reported drastic costs savings and reduced liability.

Gore was resistant to the suggestion.

But the city expert’s primary cost-saving recommendation was slashing the number of prisoners at the jail, which now stands around 2,400, many times the national average for a city the size of New Orleans.

The proper size of the jail population remains the most contentious unknown variable in the decision over how much money the sheriff really needs.

Nearly every price tag depends on determining how many inmates there will be, from food and medicine purchases to the number of deputies required to supervise the prisoners.

In 2011, the City Council passed an ordinance that capped the number of jail beds at 1,438 and required Gusman to build a new facility that could house every type of prisoner within that one building.

Gusman designed a new jail, currently under construction and scheduled to open in April, that has 1,438 beds.

But it lacks many prison necessities, such as suicide-watch cells, a laundry and small tiers for inmates — such as women, youths charged as adults and the mentally ill —who must be kept segregated from the main prison population.

It was reportedly designed with no infirmary, but the plans have since been modified to include a medical facility.

Despite the 2011 ordinance, the city grudgingly agreed to let the sheriff build an additional jail building, specifically for those inmates who require medical and mental health treatment.

In the meantime, the city and the sheriff have agreed on a temporary solution. An existing jail building, called Templeman V, had been scheduled to close when the 1,438-bed jail opens.

Kopplin on Tuesday asked the council to permit Gusman to retrofit that building for sick and suicidal inmates and to keep it open for several years, until the second new building can be designed and constructed.

However, there still is no agreement on how many inmates, in total, the city’s prison will accommodate.

“Those are some pretty heavy decisions that the City Council is going to have to make in fairly short order,” said Guidry, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee.

Some members of the council grew agitated with Gore on Tuesday when he insisted that the new 1,438-bed jail could adequately treat all varieties of medical and mental ailments.

Guidry pressed him on whether it has cells designed for prisoners on suicide watch.

“Any tier can be a suicide-watch tier; any tier can be a medical tier. That’s what we’re doing right now,” Gore said.

“To do suicide watch, you just have to plant someone in front of the cell and watch the guy all day and all night. And that can be done anywhere.”

One of the main reasons federal authorities insisted on the consent decree is that the Sheriff’s Office has been historically unable to prevent suicides, Michael Hitzman among them.

“We don’t want any other family to go through what we’ve been through,” his father said Tuesday. “A lot of these things could have been prevented.”