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A Crisis in New Orleans: The Incarceration Capital of America

New Orleans' jail, damaged by Hurricane Katrina, needs to be replaced. How big will the city make it, and in what direction will that take the city's criminal justice system?
 
 
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New Orleans’ criminal justice system is at a crossroads. A new mayor and police chief say they want to make major changes, and the police department is facing lawsuits and federal investigations that may profoundly change the department. But a simultaneous, and less publicized, struggle is being waged and the results will likely define the city’s justice system for a generation: the city’s jail, damaged in Katrina, needs to be replaced. City leaders must now decide how big the new institution will be.

With 3,500 beds in a city of about 350,000 residents, Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is already the largest per capita county jail of any major US city. Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the elected official with oversight over the jail, has submitted plans for an even larger complex. A broad coalition of community members is seeking to take the city in a different direction. They want a smaller facility, and they are demanding that the money that would be spent on a larger jail be diverted to alternatives to incarceration, like drug treatment programs and mental health facilities. With the first public hearings on the issue scheduled for this week, the battle is heating up.

At first, it seemed like an expansion of OPP was inevitable. This is a city with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the US, and politicians rarely lose votes by calling for more jail cells. But in a city that has led the nation in incarceration, residents across race and class lines are questioning fundamental assumptions about what works in criminal justice.

A broad array of criminal justice experts and community leaders has spoken in favor of a smaller jail. This is an issue that has allowed the religious foundation Baptist Community Ministries and prison abolition organizers from Critical Resistance to find common ground. The online activist group ColorOfChange.org also recently joined in the conversation, with an appeal that has generated hundreds of emails to the mayor and city council. “In all the work we’ve been doing on criminal justice reform, this is definitely a pivotal moment,” says Rosana Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. “We’re finally getting local and state government to think about public safety from a perspective of real safety, not an incarceration perspective.”

The OPP Reform Coalition, a pre-Katrina alliance that has recently been revitalized, has led the campaign. In September, when it seemed like the prison expansion was proceeding without public debate, they took out a full-page ad in the city’s daily paper listing other things that the money spent on OPP could be spent on. The ad featured an assortment of New Orleanians - including musicians, local politicians, community leaders, and members of the cast and crew of the HBO show Treme. The diverse assembly of public figures not only signed the ad, but also helped pay for it, donating $22.39 each, the amount that the jail currently charges the city for every prisoner. In the aftermath of the ad, attention turned to a working group formed by the mayor to address the issue. That body is expected to make its recommendations this month.

Incarceration Industry

Orleans Parish Prison is a giant complex in Midcity New Orleans, made up of several buildings spread across a dozen blocks employing nearly a thousand nonunion workers. The city jail is a small empire under the absolute control of the city Sheriff, who can use jail employees for election campaigns, and send out prisoners to work for local businesses. The majority of the metropolitan area’s mental health facilities are also located within the jail, meaning that for many who have mental health issues, the jail is their only option for treatment.

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is by far the highest in the world – more than ten times higher than most European countries, and twenty times higher than Japan. Pre-Katrina, OPP had 7,200 beds. In a city with a population of about 465,000, this came to about one bed for every sixty-five city residents. Neighboring Jefferson Parish has 100,000 more people than Orleans Parish, and has only 900 beds. Caddo Parish – in the northeast of the state - has more violent crime, but still imprisons far less people. If OPP had the same number of beds as the national average of one for every 388 residents, the jail would shrink to about 850 beds.

Aside from its size, OPP is unique in other ways. Under the terms of a lawsuit over prison conditions filed in 1969, the jail’s budget is based on a per-diem paid by the city for every inmate in prison. The more people locked in OPP, the higher the funding Sheriff Gusman has at his disposal. “Our current funding structure is creating a perverse incentive to lock more people up,” explains Dana Kaplan, the director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a criminal justice advocacy organization and member of the OPP Reform Coalition.

The institution of OPP is also exceptional in that it is a county jail and a state prison combined into one entity. About 2,700 people in the jail are mostly pre-trial detainees - the majority being held for drug possession, traffic violations, public drunkenness, or other nonviolent offenses - and are legally innocent. An additional eight hundred people are state prisoners who have been convicted in court, who may spend years or even decades at OPP.

Almost 60,000 people passed through OPP in the last twelve months, a staggering figure for a city of this size. The average length of stay was 20 days. The largest portion of pre-trial prisoners in the jail are there for nonviolent, municipal offenses that even under conservative standards should not warrant jail time, including 20,000 arrests this year for traffic violations. “New Orleans is basically the incarceration capitol of the world,” says Kaplan. “You’re hard-pressed to find a resident of New Orleans – especially in poor communities - that hasn’t had their lives disrupted in some way by this institution.”

An article by journalist Ethan Brown in one of the city’s weekly papers noted, “thanks to the profound misallocation of law enforcement resources in New Orleans, you're more likely to end up in Orleans Parish Prison for a traffic offense than for armed robbery or murder.” Ultimately, this struggle over the size of the jail is also about the city’s incarceration priorities. If the city builds a larger jail, it will have to keep filling it with tens of thousands of people. If a smaller facility is built, it will change who is arrested in the city, and how long they spend behind bars.

Because much of the jail was underwater during Katrina, many of the buildings have either been closed or need massive renovation. By one estimate, the new jail that the sheriff seeks would cost 250 million dollars, much of that to come in reimbursements from FEMA. The sheriff has yet to reveal how much of the construction costs would come from federal dollars, although the state chapter of the ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the information. Even if most of the construction were paid for by FEMA, as the Sheriff has indicated, the continued upkeep would fall to the city.

Sheriff Gusman did not respond to requests for comment, but he has said, at a meeting of mayor’s task force on the jail, “I’ve always advocated for a smaller facility,” and spoke of being satisfied with 4,200 beds. The plans he has submitted to various planning bodies, however, indicate otherwise.

The Sheriff has issued several conflicting statements and reports about the size of the jail he is seeking, as well as where the funding will come from. A Justice Facilities Master Plan, prepared in collaboration with the Sheriff’s office, called for 8,000 beds, which would give the jail capacity to imprison nearly one of every 40 people currently in the city. A planning document recently prepared by the Sheriff called for 5,800 beds. No plans or public documents issued by his office have called for building a jail smaller than the current facility.

 
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