Last week, local news media reported that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants state inmates out of the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). In a letter to Governor Bobby Jindal, Landrieu asked the Governor to remove the approximately 380 Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoners currently doing time at OPP. The mayor wrote, “At this time it is clear that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office needs to dedicate all its energy and resources to their primary mission, which is to safely and constitutionally house local prisoners.”
The importance of this letter lies in the ongoing debates about the future of OPP, as well as criminal justice in Orleans Parish in general. For example, as we write, the Sheriff’s Office continues to defy even the most basic requirements of the ongoing federal consent decree. Furthermore, the construction of a new, $145 million jail on Perdido Street has become a stubborn pursuit by Sheriff Marlin Gusman to house as many prisoners as possible. While the City Council unanimously passed a 2011 mandate capping the new prison at 1,438 beds, the Sheriff is now seeking an additional facility, or Phase III, to house acutely mentally ill inmates (he failed to equip the first housing facility to accommodate these prisoners). Such a building, of course, would include room for general population inmates and put the new OPP over the original bed limit.
Because the parish’s current jail remains a human rights catastrophe, and because Gusman still attempts to justify the construction of Phase III on the backs of our community’s most vulnerable inmates, Landrieu’s letter to the Governor resonates deeply with those of us who wish to hold Gusman to the original 1,438 bed cap. Removing DOC prisoners, as well as 65 Plaquemines Parish inmates, would lower the current OPP population. Less prisoners would, in theory, go a long way in alleviating the current problems identified in the consent decree. Furthermore, less prisoners would, in theory, mitigate the need for Phase III. As the City Council continues to argue, Gusman can retrofit the current Phase II facility to accommodate the acutely mentally ill without a new building. Less inmates, in other words, would enable the Sheriff’s Office to, in Landrieu’s words, “safely and constitutionally house local prisoners.”
But Sheriff Gusman sees things differently. In response to the letter the mayor sent to Jindal, Gusman penned a letter to the New Orleans Advocate claiming that Landriew’s request is “misguided and, if implemented, would have adverse effects on public safety and an immediate increase in costs.” First, Gusman warns that removing DOC prisoners would eliminate a successful state-funded re-entry program. Gusman writes:
Eliminating a well-established and successful re-entry program increases the likelihood that — without the program — released inmates would re-offend, thereby creating and prolonging a cycle of recidivism and adding to the cost of re-arrest, prosecution and ultimately re-incarceration. The program actually saves the city more than $1 million annually.
On face value, this is a plausible claim. Few advocates of criminal justice reform would argue against successful re-entry programs.
However, we must consider the source of this claim, coming as it is from a man who also exploits the real needs of the mentally ill to justify building a larger jail.
The remainder, and vast majority, of Gusman’s response to Landrieu betrays the cynicism that underlies his espoused concerns for the incarcerated. He is, at the end of the day, worried about his bottom line.
Giving up DOC prisoners would require Gusman to hire community members to work in the OPP kitchen, as opposed to the far cheaper alternative of forced inmate labor. The sheriff also warns that losing DOC inmates would deny “the Coroner’s Office and other public agencies” state-subsidized labor that protects them from having to pay standard wages to unincarcerated citizens. Gusman adds, “Community service workers pick up trash after football games. They are part of cleanup crews after Mardi Gras parades and they set up/break down tents for numerous community organizations, helping to lower their costs.” Housing DOC prisoners, in other words, allows key sectors of the city and parish to go about their business on the cheap.
A cost-effective Mardi Gras depends on it.
The history of incarceration in the United States, especially in southern states like Louisiana, is one of forced labor. After the end of slavery and the collapse of Reconstruction, southern states adopted convict leasing programs that allowed employers, including plantation owners, to rent predominantly black prisoner labor on the cheap. The result — and intention — was a criminal justice system that reproduced the conditions of involuntary servitude for black Americans. Given that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country (and, therefore, the world), and a profoundly racially-lopsided one at that, these troubling parallels to chattel slavery continue.
Gusman’s dream, in other words, is the perpetuation of our racial nightmares.
The sheriff’s desire to retain DOC inmates and subvert the current 1,438 bed limit is also symptomatic of an entrenched defect in the Louisiana criminal justice system as a whole. Since the early 1990s, when the state prison system was under a federal court order to reduce its population, the Department of Corrections began sending inmates to parish prisons and paying sheriffs to take them. While rural jails benefit the most from this system, which allows them to collect state revenue and inmates, while spending relatively little of the money on the needs of those they imprison, larger parishes like Orleans also rake in state cash for taking DOC prisoners. Gusman draws on FEMA and city money to build a larger jail, while he, by his own admission, stands to save money by continuing to accept DOC inmates. This is a sinister web of financial interests benefiting from the mass incarceration of primarily black bodies and exploitation of their forced labor.
All of this is worth remembering when Gusman claims to act out of concern for taxpayers and the mentally ill.
While Landrieu’s letter, and the City Council’s continued resistance to Phase III are welcome developments in this ongoing drama, advocates for criminal justice reform in Orleans Parish should not rely on city officials for the answers. New Orleans remains a profoundly unequal city, rife with gross economic disparities, racial segregation, racist law enforcement, and persistent gentrification. All of these are key drivers of mass incarceration.
Furthermore, the question of how the parish and state should confine the mentally ill side-steps the more fundamental question of if we should incarcerate them in the first place. America’s jails and prisons are its largest de-facto mental health facilities. Incarceration only exacerbates mental illness, driving the incarcerated to deeper despair and increases the likelihood they will harm themselves or others.
We should be seeking new ways to care for our mentally ill neighbors, not debating the nuances of how we cage them.
Thus, while the present feud between Mayor Landrieu and Sheriff Gusman provides important openings for the fight against mass incarceration, we should not mistake Landrieu for an ally in this fight. A reversal of our city and parish’s shameful reputation for incarceration will depend on the imagination, efforts, and leadership of ordinary citizens working to protect their communities.