Sheriff gives tour of new parish prison

In less than three months, many of the inmates held at the dilapidated Orleans Parish Prison are slated to be transferred to a new facility, a long-awaited move that Sheriff Marlin Gusman says will be critical to fixing the widespread problems at a jail that is considered to be among the most dangerous in the country.

During an interview and tour of the $145 million facility Tuesday, Gusman said that after years of construction, the new building is tentatively scheduled to open May 15. The sheriff has portrayed the “direct supervision”-style lockup as a panacea of sorts that will solve some of the unconstitutional conditions at the current jail that prompted a federal consent decree mandating sweeping improvements.

“We’ve been trying to make things work here as we tear down buildings and we move into other buildings and focus on where we’re going to be,” Gusman said.

Who is to blame for Orleans Parish Prison’s dysfunction has emerged as the central issue in the March 15 runoff as Gusman defends his record against Charles Foti, who as sheriff before Gusman ran a controversial jail for three decades. While Gusman has emphasized the benefits that will come from the new buildings he had a hand in designing, Foti has countered that significant changes won’t materialize at the jail without a change in leadership and how staff are deployed.

The new 1,438-bed, four-story facility is intended to replace a collection of dilapidated buildings, tents and modular structures currently housing the city’s roughly 2,000 inmates. The facility has been erected on a Perdido Street lot where two jail buildings stood before they were damaged in Hurricane Katrina and eventually torn down.

Gusman said four of the eight tents that were used to house inmates are being taken down by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which has acquired them as federal surplus. But as officials prepare to close the old jail building and shuffle around the inmate population, questions remain about what combination of facilities will have to remain open — and for how long — to accommodate the inmate population without jeopardizing public safety.

“It’s going to be real tight,” Gusman said, adding that the new building ultimately will be able to house only about 1,200 inmates. “You can’t just count the beds. You have to count the functional capacity,” he said.

A team of experts monitoring the implementation of the consent decree found that one of the many alarming issues at the jail is that staff members are often unaware assaults are taking place, due to a lack of supervision in the housing units. The new jail will have a “direct supervision” design that allows deputies on duty to monitor inmates from within their housing area instead of remotely.

“The deputy is there with the inmates as opposed to down the hall looking in,” said Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

Gusman also said each tier will have its own recreation yard, visitation area and meeting space, amenities not found at the current jail. But for all of the benefits Gusman has touted about the new jail, it is not designed to hold various “special” inmate populations, such as those who require acute mental-health services, meaning the sheriff will likely need another, yet-to-be-built facility. In the interim, Gusman has been discussing with the city officials the need to keep open one or more additional facilities that were to be shuttered with the opening of the new jail.

City Councilwoman Susan Guidry said the council’s Criminal Justice Committee will discuss a motion next week that would keep open the Temporary Detention Center to house inmates who require certain medical or mental-health services. That motion replaced a previous proposal that would have kept open a building known as Templeman V, though Gusman said Tuesday that he’d like to keep both structures open.

“The question becomes which one is the most cost-effective and the most practical way to accommodate the mental-health and medical needs of the population,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, which has warned that dramatically reducing the jail’s capacity would be a dangerous mistake. “The whole jail size issue is not part of the consent decree, and I think it took a hiatus during the election cycle. But I think we’ll begin talking again soon about how big the jail needs to be.”

Story was updated to change incorrect information about medical services at 11:44 a.m. on Wednesday.