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FEMA Funds New Orleans Jail Complex

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has committed approximately $114 million to build a new jail complex that will be overseen by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Orleans Parish Prison and sheriff’s administration facilities suffered significant damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. [See: PLN, April 2007, p.1].

Before the storm, the prison complex contained close to 7,500 beds and housed city, state and federal prisoners in seven jail facilities.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman originally proposed that a 4,300-bed prison complex be constructed using FEMA funds. The New Orleans City Council agreed in February 2011 to build 1,438 beds at an estimated cost of $78.6 million. The old prison buildings are to be torn down upon completion of the new complex. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.28]. Gusman announced the closure of one of the old buildings, the Orleans Parish Prison House of Detention, on April 10, 2012.

FEMA has committed $50.4 million towards the prison construction project, but there was haggling over cost increases and FEMA’s contribution as the project was redesigned and expanded. Part of the amended plan is a new administration building that will share some of the same walls as the jail.

The four-story “all inclusive administrative facility” will include housing for staff, a television studio, an office for internal affairs and a bail bonds information office, stated Andre Cadogan, deputy director of FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office.

Sheriff Gusman said the new complex “will be technologically advanced” as a result of using experts “who considered every aspect of preferred jail design relative to safety of inmates, visitors and deputies.” FEMA is providing the grant money to the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. As the Sheriff’s Office incurs construction costs, it is reimbursed.

Another project within the jail complex is a 163,000-square-foot kitchen and warehouse facility for the jail and Sheriff’s Office. FEMA agreed to pay the $63.6 million construction cost of that building.

Of course, no one is asking why the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers tens of millions of dollars in funding for a new jail complex to be part of its “emergency management” mission.

Any construction expenses not covered by FEMA will come from a $63 million bond issue for the New Orleans Law Enforcement District, which was renewed by voters in 2008. That bond is funded by a $2.9 million property assessment; it also supports construction costs for municipal and juvenile courts, as well as the coroner, district attorney and clerk of criminal court.

In June 2012, news reports indicated that Sheriff Gusman and city officials were considering the construction of a third jail complex building to house another 600 prisoners. According to emails from Gusman that were obtained via a public records request, the additional building would hold prisoners with medical and mental health needs, as well as minimum-security male prisoners and state prisoners who have been transferred to re-entry programs. A diagram of the third building posted on the city’s website stated the construction costs would be paid by FEMA.

Community advocates have called on city officials to limit the size of the new jail complex to 1,438 beds as originally specified by the City Council. On April 24, 2012, the Micah Project, a faith-based group, held a meeting in New Orleans attended by over 400 church members who urged the city to keep the jail’s population at 1,438 beds. Gusman, however, prefers a larger facility.

“We have to be realistic about the city we live in today,” he stated. “We are engaged in a relentless struggle with violent crime.”

The Orleans Parish Prison system, which currently holds around 2,600 prisoners, is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April 2012 that alleges high levels of violence and sexual abuse. See: Jones v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. LA), Case No. 2:12-cv-00859. The Parish’s jail facilities have also been criticized by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has cited unconstitutional conditions and high rates of sexual assaults. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.3].

Sources: The Times-Picayune, www.

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Related legal case

Jones v. Gusman