Analysis: New Jail, Old Arguments In New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans jail inmates have been moved from the aging, dangerous rust-bucket of a lockup that drew national headlines for its squalor into a gleaming, modern facility employing state-of-the-art design to increase security and promote the safety of those incarcerated.

         What could possibly go wrong?

         Well, enough to keep lawyers busy in state and federal court for quite some time, it appears.

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         On the positive side, everyone agrees it's good that prisoners have been shifted out of a facility that, in the words of lawyers for the inmates and the U.S. Justice Department are "unfit for human habitation and overdue for closure."

         The problems? Start with early glitches in getting inmates to court on time for hearings before state or municipal judges.

         But if getting inmates from the jail to the nearby courthouses poses a problem, imagine the complications that might be involved in getting prisoners to hearings at the New Orleans courthouse from the East Carroll Parish jail in Lake Providence — 260 highway miles away.

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         The sheriff is pushing for the city to build still more new jail space. He said recent transfers of more than 200 pre-trial inmates to East Carroll and Franklin parishes in north Louisiana were necessary. But the move brought immediate condemnation from the city, which funds the jail operated by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, and those lawyers for the Justice Department and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which works on behalf of inmates.

         They say transferring inmates to other parishes makes no sense when the parish jail is holding an estimated 300 convicts that are the state's responsibility.

         Gusman defends the move. In a brief interview last month he said some of the state inmates are convicts who were on probation or parole awaiting trial for new crimes after being arrested again. Many others are close to completing their sentences and in a program that the sheriff takes great pride in — one that prepares inmates for re-entry into society. Gusman credits it with reducing recidivism.

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         "I think what you have to do is assess your priorities," Gusman said.

         Inmates' lawyers, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration, the City Council and the Justice Department have assessed their priorities and found Gusman's wanting.

         "The Sheriff is clinging to a re-entry program that he is voluntarily opting to maintain for the Department of Corrections," says a federal court brief filed by lawyers for the MacArthur center and the federal government. "Plaintiffs fully and wholeheartedly support the concept of re-entry programs. However, the Sheriff cannot retain that program at the expense of the people he is legally tasked with housing: the pretrial detainees of Orleans Parish. "

         The Orleans Parish Public Defenders office, already burdened with a heavy case load, says in a separate filing that the transfer is an added, unnecessary complication that endangers inmates' constitutional rights to counsel.

         "Inmates have missed previously scheduled court dates including arraignments, pretrial conferences, and trials in both Criminal District Court and Municipal Court," says the document, filed in mid-September. "Several inmates moved upstate soon after arrest still have not met their appointed counsel."

         U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, presiding over court-ordered jail reforms, has set a Dec. 9 hearing on the city's move to block such transfers. It's an element of ongoing legal battles between the city, which must fund the jail, and the sheriff, the elected official tasked with operating it.

         It all plays into larger dispute on whether the city should build additional inmate housing to supplement the 1,438-bed facility that opened last month. Other elements of that dispute include where acutely mentally ill inmates should be housed; whether the new $145 million jail that just opened was properly designed so that some vulnerable inmates could be safely separated from the rest of the inmate population; and, whether more space should be built at a time when the city — like jurisdictions around the nation — are looking at alternatives to incarceration.

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill



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