Saturday, August 24, 2013

Keep building more jail

I know this point tends to get lost in the fun of Mitch's and Gusman's long public feud over consent decree reforms but, despite what the Advocate implies in this report, it was never clear that Mitch was ever opposed to building Gusman a new jail.
“At this point, with construction well underway, it is a more cost effective use of taxpayer money to build a new building with mental and medical health beds than to retrofit the facility currently under construction by the sheriff,” the mayor’s spokeswoman, Garnesha Crawford, wrote in a prepared statement in response to a request for an interview.

Crawford blamed the mess all on Gusman: “It is a shame that the sheriff did not follow the law and failed to honor his commitment to construct a facility that could house all types of prisoners.”

The sheriff has nearly $50 million in unspent FEMA funding, which Crawford said would be used to construction the third building, which she promised would include “no more than 250 mental health, medical and substance abuse beds.”
Maybe it is "a shame" that they just have to go ahead and do this now.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that isn't what they wanted to do in the first place.

Opponents of the expansion aren't just agitating against a bigger jail.  They're trying to overturn a whole set of "perverse incentives" which reward the sheriff's office for keeping more people locked up.
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 capital 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.
At various turns, both the Mayor and the Sheriff have offered sympathetic lip service to this concern but have made no progress toward doing anything about it.  

See this exchange between CM Susan Guidry and city budget director Cary Grant in 2011.
“I’m surprised that the administration has had a year to do this and we still don’t have a fixed budget,” (Councilwoman Susan) Guidry said. “This is a perverse incentive to keep people in jail. It’s wrong, it’s not a healthy thing to do and we have had a whole year since the last budget. I don’t want another year to go by without us dealing with this.”

Guidry’s criticism prompted Landrieu’s budget director, Cary Grant, to say that a fixed payment system for Gusman is still “a goal of the Landrieu administration.”

So, Guidry asked him, how many people did he have working on the issue today?

Today we probably have fewer people working on that than we should,” Grant admitted.
In April of this year, we find little to have changed.
Now that the Justice Department is insisting that the city share responsibility with the sheriff for the unconstitutional conditions there, Mayor Landrieu would like us to believe that his hands have been tied since he has no control over Gusman or OPP. But the Landrieu administration has dragged its feet on changing the funding of the jail from a per diem structure that incentivizes filling beds at the jail to one that would increase transparency and accountability. When Laura Coon of the Department of Justice asked Kopplin if the city had done anything to increase the city's oversight over the jail, for example, ordering a forensic audit,  Kopplin admitted that although this was something within the city's power, they hadn't ever looked into it.
Not that they haven't been busy.

Three years ago, the mayor convened a "working group" to consider the jail expansion. The group met in secret until forced to do otherwise. Then, after some "lashing out" on the part of the public, the Mayor went ahead and approved the expansion saying only that they would determine the number of beds later.

A few months later that number was set at 1,438  by the city council and the mayor.  And now they've decided to scrap that plan.  So we're back to where we were.  The per-diem is still in place and Gusman will get a bigger jail to feed with it.

Finally, here's a new Al Jazeera report on the horrid conditions that exist at OPP.  It should be clear that the system needs a major overhaul.  But if the city continues to resist the federal consent decree  or keeps dragging its feed with per diem reform, it isn't clear that this new building will bring anything other than just more of the same.

Orleans Parish Prison - America Tonight - Al Jazeera America from Anon Videos on Vimeo.

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