FOX 8 Investigates: New Orleans jail plans worry reformers

An artist's depiction of the new jail
An artist's depiction of the new jail

In a joint investigation with The Lens, FOX 8 News has obtained emails that show discussions are underway, and plans have been drawn, to build a new jail in Orleans Parish that could hold 600 more inmates than are currently allowed under city law.

The revelations are a matter of concern to prison reform advocates, who believe an expansion now would undermine current efforts to improve the criminal justice system.

The work on phase two of the new jail proceeds through the summer heat off the Expressway at Broad.  What you see now being built is a new 1438-bed facility, as approved by the New Orleans City Council.

But in a joint investigation with our partners at The Lens, FOX 8 has learned that there are quiet discussions underway to build phase three, a new 600-bed facility between the new jail and the kitchen warehouse facility.

John Wool with the prison reform group known as the Vera Institute would not recommend building additional beds until we have additional information.

According to plans obtained by FOX 8 and The Lens, the kitchen is designed to adjoin phase three; in fact, walkway cutouts to the second floor are evident.

The Sheriff's Office says the property is owned by the city, and there is no actual expansion work now taking place.

But e-mails between Sheriff Marlin Gusman and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin discuss as many as 654 new beds in phase three.  And these drawings obtained by The Lens and FOX 8 show they would be used for medical, re-entry, and general inmate housing purposes.

John Wool with the Vera Institute says other cities New Orleans' size get by with jails housing half the inmates currently being housed here.  And he says it's important that we take a hard look at any effort to build more jail beds, before alternatives are fully considered.

"We need another year," Wool told us.

Wool says reforms such as improved pre-trial services have just begun, and they are already resulting in better decision-making when it comes to determining who should be jailed.

"There are already returns," says Wool.  "The judges are able to safely release those who do not pose risks."

Wool says the bigger issue is whether the Orleans Parish Prison should house nearly hundreds of state prisoners.

"It's not good practice to house state prisoners," Wool insists.  "It's not what is done at facilities across the country."

Wool says the city's goal at this point should be fewer prisoners, with outside supervision wherever possible, and that plans to expand should be placed firmly on hold.

Ryan Berni with the Mayor's Office says that, in spite of the emails, there is no current work taking place on a phase three.  He says the mayor remains committed to the working group that determined that a 1,400-bed facility was appropriate.  But he says public safety will always be at the forefront of decisions made in this matter, and he tells FOX 8 that any extra jail beds would be used for such things as prisoners in re-entry, mental health, or substance abuse programs.