News Article Details

New Orleans ready to follow 'very costly' plan for housing mental-health inmates, with caveats

The Advocate - 2/26/2019

Feb. 26-- Feb. 26--The city says it plans to move ahead with a costly, stopgap renovation of a New Orleans jail building to house dozens of inmates with mental health issues -- but it also wants to keep its options open.

In a court filing Monday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration said it will begin work on a yearlong, $4.5 million to $5 million renovation of the Temporary Detention Center on Perdido Street to house male inmates awaiting trial with mental problems.

Those prisoners are set to be kicked out of a state prison in October.

Yet city officials also said they will "simultaneously continue to explore other options which may be more feasible given the temporary nature of this very costly solution."

No funding source for the renovations has yet been found, the city said.

The four-page plan is the city's attempt to respond to what U.S. District Judge Lance Africk has called a looming crisis: the state's decision to end a contract to house city inmates with mental health problems at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.

Jail Compliance Director Darnley Hodge Sr. rang the alarm bell about the future of housing for those inmates last month. While the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office is responsible for running the jail, under state law the city must provide the facilities.

Hodge called on the city to fund a renovation of the Temporary Detention Center while it follows through on long-stalled plans to build a permanent facility for inmates with mental health problems.

In its update to the court, the city said that it presented a series of alternative proposals to the Sheriff's Office last month, including creating permanent housing for mental health inmates at the Temporary Detention Center or renovating part of the existing main jail building for the same purpose.

In either scenario, the city would scrap the idea of building a new facility solely for inmates with mental health issues.

That filing is the first sign that Cantrell's administration hopes to revive the idea of housing mental health inmates inside the main Orleans Justice Center, an idea considered and shelved under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The Sheriff's Office rejected all of the city's proposals on Jan. 23. Two days later, Africk ordered the city to submit a "granular" plan for housing the mental health inmates in the Temporary Detention Center.

As the latest court filing makes clear, Cantrell's administration has not given up on trying to find alternatives to renovating the Temporary Detention Center while also building a permanent mental health building.

However, Africk can exert significant pressure to force the city to shell out for the Temporary Detention Center. The judge oversees the jail's 2013 reform agreement with the federal government and legal advocates for the inmates, called a consent decree.

Even if the city follows the two-step plan preferred by Africk and the Sheriff's Office, there are no guarantees that the stopgap renovation of the Temporary Detention Center can be finished in time to house the inmates set to be kicked out of Elayn Hunt in October.

The city estimated that it will take one month to finish plans for the renovation, two months to bid the project and eight to nine months to construct it, meaning far beyond October.

The city did not address where inmates with mental health problems would be housed between October and the completion of the renovations.

Money is also a concern. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency would fund the long-planned new building for mental health inmates, the city says there is no money left over for the stopgap renovation of the Temporary Detention Center and an alternate funding source is needed.

It's not clear how Africk will respond to the city's latest filing. He has scheduled a March 14 status conference.

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