Planning Commission staff recommend approval of the Phase III correctional facility


New Orleans Planning Commission staff recommended approval of zoning changes that would allow the construction of a controversial New Orleans penal facility known as Phase III that would house inmates with acute mental health needs.

Planning staff did not endorse the proposal as a criminal justice policy, evaluating it strictly as a land use issue, the report said. The committee will take a non-binding vote on the matter next week. Ultimately, the decision will be left to New Orleans City Council to approve or deny the changes.

The 89-bed facility – planned for vacant land between the current prison building and the prison kitchen / warehouse – is the subject of litigation in federal court, in ongoing proceedings in the 8-year prison. federal approval decree.

Although the prison is managed by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the city of New Orleans will be responsible for construction of Phase III if it goes ahead. But the administration of New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell contends the new building is unnecessary and with a budget of over $ 50 million – of which less than $ 40 million would come from post-Katrina FEMA funding, while that the city would pay the rest – too expensive. The city prefers an alternative, such as a renovation of part of the existing prison building, to serve as a medical and mental health unit.

Many criminal justice reform organizations have long opposed any expansion of the prison footprint beyond the 1,438-bed main building approved by the council in 2011 and opened in 2015 as the Orleans Justice Center. . Groups have often argued that the city should invest in mental health care outside of prison. Two organizations, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and Voice of the Experienced, are planning a mock jazz funeral for Phase III on Saturday to urge the Planning Commission to vote against the proposed building.

But federal judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the dispute over the consent decree, ordered the city in January to honor legal agreements – made by the administration of former mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Cantrell administration – to build the facility. The city has appealed the order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which has yet to render a decision.

After initially agreeing to build Phase III in 2017 during Landrieu’s tenure, the city government under the administration of Mayor LaToya Cantrell continued planning the construction of the facility for over a year in 2019 and in early 2020. The city has provided regular updates to Africk and others. parties to the approval decree on the progress of pre-construction work.

But in June 2020, the city abruptly halted work on the facility, arguing in court that it was a waste of money. While the majority of costs would be covered by FEMA funds, the city argued that anticipated tax revenue shortfalls due to COVID-related business closures and a tourism collapse, as well as a decrease in the prison population and improved mental health care in the current prison meant they shouldn’t have to build phase III.

But other parties to the consent decree – including the US Department of Justice and civil rights lawyers representing the plaintiff’s inmate class – have spoken in favor of the facility. They argued that the consent decree requires the prison to safely house all types of inmates. This includes people with acute mental health and medical care needs, which neither the city’s 2011 zoning ordinance nor the design of the OJC – the current prison building – took into account. into account.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is also supporting Phase III, having previously advocated for a new, much larger building on the prison campus.

In a report released Friday, court-appointed monitors to monitor the prison’s progress in complying with the terms of the consent decree called Phase III “essential to the provision of mental health and medical services in accordance with the consent judgment.”

The report also states that the prison has regressed in compliance since the last report, released in February, “due to non-compliance with policies and procedures in place.”

But in a statement, Gusman called the monitors’ position on Phase III “the most important take-away from the report.”

“We have to complete phase III,” he said. “Some people try to make it a political issue, it’s not. It is a human question. To provide the level of care, custody and control necessary for the population of the Orléans Justice Center, we need a dedicated mental health facility.

“Staff recognize legitimate concerns”

Africk was first made aware of OJC’s design flaws in 2013, shortly before signing an order approving the consent decree. The following year, Gusman struck an agreement with the state to house inmates with acute care needs at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. The state then decided to end the deal, forcing the sheriff’s office and the city to seek both temporary and permanent housing solutions.

In 2019, planning committee staff recommended approval of zoning changes that allowed for the renovation of another prison facility – the temporary detention center – as a stopgap measure to house inmates with mental illness until that a more permanent solution be found. The committee, however, voted unanimously against the measure.

Still, the city council eventually passed it, on condition that the number of inmates in the prison be capped at 1,250. This replaced the previous bed cap of 1,438. (Currently, 876 people are detained by the office. sheriff, according to data available on the city council website.)

In the new Town Planning Commission staff report, released this week, planners said their decision was not an approval of the facility as a political issue, but determined that it was appropriate from a ‘land use perspective’ and ‘would not result in significant new impacts or intensification of current use.

“Staff recognize legitimate concerns about the merits of this request, including the incarceration of people with mental health issues, the price tag of $ 51 million (of which only $ 39 million would be covered by funds from FEMA) and what is permitted under the Federal Consent Order. ”, We read in the report. “That said, the role of the Planning Commission is closely focused on evaluating the impact of a development project according to the type of activity it generates; when, where and how this activity takes place; impacts on automobile traffic and parking; sound impacts; environmental impacts; and aesthetic impacts.

The committee is also considering a separate proposal to modernize the prison, the city’s preferred alternative, which the report says “will be considered at a subsequent meeting of the town planning committee.”

“Ultimately, city council has to consider how each proposal aligns with its political agenda,” the report read.

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