New Orleans: Incarceration Capitol of the US

A struggle over the size of New Orleans’ jail could define the city’s future

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 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."

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Spotlight on Abuse

With seven
reported deaths in jail this year, OPP is under the spotlight for violent and abusive
treatment of prisoners. A September 2009 report from the US Department of
Justice(DOJ) found,
"conditions at OPP violate the constitutional rights of inmates." The
DOJ went on to document "a pattern and practice of unnecessary and
inappropriate use of force by OPP correctional officers," including
"several examples where OPP officers openly engaged in abusive and
retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to prisoners. In some
instances, the investigation found, the officers' conduct was so flagrant it clearly
constituted calculated abuse."

In the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people who had not been convicted
of any crime were lost in the city's prison system. Last month a jury awarded
two men from Ohio a $650,000 judgment for their treatment after the storm. The
men were on a road trip and stopped in New Orleans for a drink on Bourbon
Street. They were arrested for public drunkenness and spent a month disappeared
in the system, without being allowed even one phone call to their families.

In a city under
fiscal crisis, advocates have focused not only on the decades of evidence that
mass incarceration has only made people in the city feel less safe, but also on
the financial costs of this massive jail. In addition to calling for reforms
that would cause less people to be locked up, the reform coalition demands
that, "funds dedicated to building a bigger jail must be reallocated to
building the infrastructure of a caring community, including recreational,
educational, mental health, and affordable housing facilities."

"Parents are
crying out, saying where's the recreation for our children?" explains Andrea
Slocum, an organizer with Critical Resistance.Slocum says that when she talks to city residents, the idea
of redirecting money from the prison has wide support.

"It's an exciting time for the city in
a lot of ways," says Michael Jacobson of the Vera Institute of Justice, a
nonprofit organization that has been advising the City, including the Sheriff.
Jacobson, who served as correction commissioner for New York City in the
mid-90s, managed to reduce the population of New York City's jail system even
in the midst of the mass arrests of the Giuliani administration. He believes
similar change is possible in New Orleans. "You can't create or innovate unless
you're willing to step out and change what you're doing," he says.The Vera Institute has received funding
from the US Department of Justice for a pre-trial services program that has
reduced incarceration in other cities, and they project New Orleans will also
be able to see a reduction.

But the
drive to build more jail cells is hard to stop, and many barriers remain. Sheriffs in Louisiana have no term
limits, and there are few leverages on their influence. Sheriff Gusman was
first elected in 2004 and has faced little opposition since then. The previous
Criminal Sheriff held the position for 30 years, only leaving when he ran for
state Attorney General.

the Sheriff's department has begun construction on a building to hold 400
additional beds. He initially told reporters that he would close other
facilities and the new construction would not add up to additional capacity.
However, in a letter to the State Bond Commission, he predicted increased
revenue from holding additional inmates.

Advocates believe
that the tide is beginning to turn, but the new construction already
underway indicates that there is still a lot of work to be done and not
much time.
"We really need to keep the pressure on and the momentum consistent,"
Rosana Cruz. "They'll shake our hands and make these promises but
these deals are being made behind closed doors."

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