Gusman eyes plan to move mentally ill inmates to St. Gabriel

Amid mounting pressure to overhaul Orleans Parish Prison, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has begun talks with state corrections officials about relocating some mentally ill inmates to a St. Gabriel prison, potentially removing scores of detainees from conditions deemed unlawful by a federal judge.

The inmates apparently would be moved to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans, for months or even years while Gusman seeks to build a detention facility that could accommodate inmates in need of acute mental health care.

It’s not clear how the sheriff would finance that construction, and the plan collides with a proposal by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to retrofit part of a new $145 million jail building nearing completion so it could provide acute mental health treatment and, perhaps someday, allow New Orleans’ entire jail population to be housed under one roof.

Details of the St. Gabriel discussions, which emerged in court documents and interviews, remained sketchy Thursday, one day before Gusman’s attorneys were to brief U.S. District Judge Lance Africk on how the sheriff will comply with the mental health care provisions spelled out in a sweeping, court-ordered plan for jail reform.

Pam Laborde, a state Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokeswoman, said the available space at Elayn Hunt “would be utilized for inmates with mental health issues,” with the Sheriff’s Office responsible for all costs. It’s not clear how many beds are being considered, and Laborde said she didn’t have any more details “because this is still in the preliminary stages.”

Gusman’s spokesman, Philip Stelly, said the Sheriff’s Office has not made any concrete proposals and has been discussing several options with state officials, including the possibility of “some inmate classifications” being sent to a state facility.

“There are very few specifics that I’ve been able to get,” Stelly said. “I don’t think anything’s been ruled in or out.”

The discussions come amid increasing concerns voiced by the U.S. Department of Justice and the attorneys for the inmates who filed a landmark lawsuit against Gusman that resulted in the wide-ranging federal consent decree.

In court filings this week, they sought to underscore that the uncertainty of OPP’s future has stranded a vulnerable group of inmates in a facility that court-appointed experts have described as a cauldron of mayhem. It’s unclear exactly how many inmates fit the description of being seriously mentally ill, but it appears to be no more than 150 of the jail’s approximately 2,000 inmates.

The question of where to house the mentally ill inmates is the latest impasse in a long-running feud between Gusman and Landrieu, who have clashed over jail funding since Africk approved the consent decree. State law requires the city to pay for the care of its inmates, a bill that’s expected to grow sharply in light of the systemic changes and new hires required by decree.

Gusman and city officials have differing explanations of how New Orleans has ended up in this quandary: preparing to open a brand new, 433,409-square-foot jail that cannot house all populations of inmates.

Gusman insists the jail was built as it should have been, but city officials, led by City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, have castigated the sheriff for disregarding the guidelines laid down by the council when it approved the new building’s construction.

What appears to be undisputed is that the building now housing severely mentally ill inmates, a 285-bed facility called Templeman V that is separate from the main jail population, is not a therapeutic environment and is better suited for populations of inmates who require single cells and a hardened setting.

The jail’s mental health monitor, Dr. Raymond F. Patterson, told a City Council committee this year that deputies have limited lines of sight in Templeman V and “would have to be on roller skates” to adequately supervise all the inmates, many of whom are at risk of harming themselves.

Africk, in a scathing order approving the consent decree a year ago Friday, faulted the Sheriff’s Office for housing inmates with mental health issues in “deplorable” conditions. “Mental health units smell strongly of feces, urine and rotting organic matter,” he wrote at the time.

The decree, which took effect in October, required Gusman to implement counseling services and comprehensive treatment plans for inmates suffering from serious mental illness, but the sheriff has not reached full compliance with any of those provisions.

“Because of the layout of the building, Templeman V will not be appropriate for mental health housing even with renovations and work to address the sanitation and maintenance problems or increased staffing,” Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who represents the plaintiffs in the consent decree, wrote in a court filing. “Accordingly, (the Sheriff’s Office) must move this population to a different housing environment to ensure that (the office) is able to meet the myriad provisions in the consent judgment related to mental health care.”

Schwartzmann sounded alarm bells about the new jail’s design as early as May 2013.

“Despite the clear requirement from the City Council that the new jail be able to house all types of prisoners, explicitly including those with mental health needs,” she wrote at the time, “the new jail does not accommodate provision of mental health services.”

This week, she requested Africk to hold a hearing later this month to hash out the best course of action for housing acutely mentally ill inmates and suggested the judge may have to intervene if city officials and Gusman can’t come to a resolution.

Housing portions of the jail’s pretrial inmate population an hour away also raises logistical questions that have not been addressed, she noted, “including the question of allocation of staffing that would be required to make such a plan feasible.”

A fuller picture of Gusman’s plan — and how aggressively he intends to oppose the city’s counterproposal of modifying the new jail — is likely to emerge in the coming days. In addition to updating Africk, the Sheriff’s Office has been asked to provide the council’s Criminal Justice Committee a raft of information about the plan for housing mentally ill inmates.

Those details, Guidry wrote in a letter to the sheriff last week, are needed in order for the council to “make difficult and swift decisions regarding the most cost-effective way to safely house our current and future jail populations.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.