There’s no doubt the New Orleans’s jail must be replaced. After first floor inmates stood in water and sewage up to their waists and sometimes necks while Katrina waters flooded their cells and guards fled, damage of both the structural and emotional kind was inevitable. The question isn’t whether or not the city needs a new jail, it’s just how big this new structure should be. With New Orleans being the incarceration capital of the country and home to a shady if not completely corrupt local criminal justice system, activists there and around the world are calling on the city to build a smaller jail and funnel the extra money into much needed incarceration alternatives and reentry programs instead.
The Orleans Parish Prison, or OPP, is a hulking campus of multiple structures spanning several city blocks. The institution currently has 3,500 beds. Prior to Katrina the jail had 1 bed for every 65 residents in the city. Currently the incarceration rate within New Orleans is something like 1,480 out of every 100,000 people, more than twice the national average and ten times higher than most European countries. Being the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated nation has given the city of New Orleans the unique distinction of being the most incarcerated in the entire world.
With all of this to consider, what is the lead jailer in the city recommending? It isn’t clear. What is clear is that nothing from the Sheriff’s department has hinted at a jail smaller than the current OPP. On one hand, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has stated he would be happy with 4,200 beds, an increase of 700 beds over the current capacity. But one planning document, created with his collaboration, has called for 8,000 beds and yet another requested the new facility have 5,800 beds. These increases come as no surprise considering how the potential for filled beds boosts the amount of money at the Sheriff’s disposal.
The potential to change the culture of crime and punishment in New Orleans is huge right now. It is an exciting period. But, if the Guzman and the status quo have their way, it will only be more of the same. Join activists in New Orleans and others across the country in calling on Sheriff Guzman, Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, and city council members to be realistic and progressive in their final new jail plan. FEMA funds, which will inevitably be used in construction, need to be allocated in a manner which supports the betterment of the city of New Orleans by not only building a jail much smaller than the Sheriff is recommending but by putting post release and pre trial programs in place. Also, tell officials there that you support the proposal that the city issue summonses rather than make arrests for minor crimes like marijuana possession.These offenses further burden the system when arrest and incarceration simply aren't appropriate.
Photo Credit: Winston Hearn
Also at issue is the incarceration of people who can be handled without further burdening the jail. I urge you to support the proposal that the city issue summonses rather than make arrests for minor crimes like marijuana possession. This would decrease crowding at OPP and free up NOPD to focus on major crimes
Because you all hold key positions and power to make the changes necessary to alter the way the world views New Orleans and to encourage a lower recidivism rate, it is crucial that the new city prison doesn’t make these problems even worse. Arrests are dropping and expected to continue falling over the next decade in New Orleans. Smarter policing is changing how the city determines who needs to be in jail and who simply needs a summons. A new grant for the Vera Institute of Justice will serve to improve the way judges determine who is eligible for pretrial release as well—all decreasing the need for thousands and thousands of jail beds.
Conflicting reports abound on just how many beds will be in the new facility. I write this letter to ask that the replacement for OPP be no larger than the existing behemoth. There is no justification for having a jail bed for every 100th New Orleanian. If the city’s incarceration standards were changed to reflect neighboring counties, it’s estimated the current population of OPP would drop by as much as 77%.
New Orleans needs a new jail—without a doubt. But there is also need for restraint. Money should be funneled into programming designed to reduce recidivism and protect public safety rather than another for-profit jail that may only serve to increase the already shameful incarceration rate. The cost of such another facility wouldn’t only be financial; it would be paid for with the spirit and the reputation of the city. Please support new jail construction that gives the people of New Orleans a chance to succeed by keeping bed space to a minimum.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.