NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration issued a stop-work order Wednesday on a nearly finished $145 million city jail that has been hailed by the local sheriff as the answer to horrendous conditions at the current lockup — infamous for rampant violence and inmate deaths.
A City Hall news release said the jail hasn’t been built to house all types of inmates, including those with medical and mental health needs. The city says accommodating such prisoners was a requirement of permits issued by the City Council.
“When construction of the jail was debated and decided back in 2010 and 2011, the Sheriff was required to build a prison that addresses the needs of all populations as conditions for approval, including those with medical and mental health needs; the current jail facility is not equipped to do that,” Jared Munster, director of the city’s permit department, said in a news release issued by Landrieu’s office.
The city ordered a halt to further construction until the sheriff can verify that he has properly addressed the problem. The problem has also been aired in federal court, where U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is overseeing implementation of an order for numerous reforms at the jail complex.
Landrieu’s office also said it was seeking a state district court order that Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the jail, meet the city’s requirements.
Landrieu has been highly critical of Gusman’s management of the jail. Gusman has criticized the city for failing to provide adequate funding.
“Today’s actions by the City of New Orleans is a political stunt to divert more than $50 million in FEMA funds it received to replace Katrina damaged jail buildings,” the sheriff said in a statement late Wednesday. “Instead, it spent portions of that money on other, non-jail related projects. … This latest ploy will result in unnecessary costs and delay the completion of construction of inmate housing.”
Gusman said the city’s move was also an attempt to deflect the public’s attention from its crime problem.
“Playing political games with the number of inmates is not what has the public concerned: it is the soaring crime and murder problem in New Orleans,” he wrote.
A lawsuit by inmates and the U.S. Justice Department resulted in a reform agreement with Gusman, which Africk approved in 2013. The agreement, known as a consent decree, calls for Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care for inmates while overhauling policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms.
Court approval followed the 2013 discovery of an inmate-made video showing blatant drug use, drinking and the brandishing of a loaded gun in a section of the jail complex that had been closed by the time the video became public.
Implementation of the agreement has been slow-going, marked at times by court fights between Gusman and Landrieu’s administration over funding for the jail.
A report last August by independent monitor Susan McCampbell said inmates and staff at the lockup “continue to face grave harm.” The dangers were evident again in March after authorities reported that an unattended inmate apparently strangled himself with a telephone cord.
Opening of the new jail building has been postponed numerous times, in part because of the failure to provide facilities to keep mentally ill and young prisoners out of the general population.
“Building a constitutional jail that can accommodate the current inmate population and special care population paves the path to improving public safety. However, in order for a constitutional jail to be built, all parties must be willing to work together towards this goal,” Gusman’s statement said.