Judge OKs New Orleans sheriff's temporary plan for housing mentally ill inmates 60 miles away

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NEW ORLEANS — The federal judge overseeing a slow-moving reform effort at the New Orleans jail approved a plan Wednesday to temporarily house male inmates with mental health needs at a facility 60 miles away.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk's order calls for the city to spend more than $400,000 on the plan initially for renovations and supplies at the state's Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where the inmates will be housed. The city also will be required to supply more than $200,000 monthly for security and mental health staff at Hunt, and food for inmates.

Africk's ruling is the latest in the court-ordered jail reform effort. The city, which funds the jail, and the sheriff, who manages it, have been at odds over how to fund the changes.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office proposed the use of Hunt for housing inmates deemed in need of treatment for "acute" and "subacute" mental health problems. It would be a temporary measure while Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration and Gusman work out a long-term solution.

Improvement of mental health treatment at the jail, formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison, is one element of an agreement Africk approved last year to settle a lawsuit by inmates and the U.S. Justice Department against Gusman over conditions at the notoriously violent and dangerous lockup. Before and after the agreement was approved, Landrieu and the sheriff sparred over its costs and Gusman's management.

Male inmates with mental health needs currently are housed in a section of the prison campus known as Templeman Five. Inmates' lawyers, the city and the sheriff have all agreed that it is inadequate. Problems include inadequate lines of sight for proper supervision, small cells and the facility's poor condition. Video of Templeman shown at a recent hearing displayed dirty showers, floors with peeling linoleum and metal beds and fixtures that court experts said inmates could use to harm themselves.

Inmates' lawyers and the city have raised concerns about Hunt's distance from New Orleans. The city also has complained about costs. Africk's ruling — critical of the city's arguments and the sheriff's management — said the city has yet to suggest a viable alternative.

"When confronted with the City's ill-advised attempt to politicize a non-political issue and a lack of management by the Sheriff, one begins to understand the glacial pace at which the Consent Judgment has been implemented thus far and the growing frustration of this Court," Africk wrote in the 29-page order.

Even as that disagreement plays out, the city and sheriff are at odds over a long-term solution. Although a new jail is under construction, questions have arisen as to whether it will include facilities sufficient for patients needing mental treatment. The city wants the sheriff to make changes to that building, which is nearing completion, to house the inmates. Gusman proposes construction of another building.

Female inmates needing mental health treatment are housed in an area of the prison complex known as the Temporary Detention Center. It has been retrofitted to house the female inmates, according to the court order, and the payments the city was ordered to make in the Wednesday order include the $8,568 cost of the retrofitting.

"While it is the city's responsibility to provide a good and sufficient jail, our proposed solution is the only viable plan on the table," Gusman said in a news release. "We are pleased that Judge Africk recognized our progressive efforts to comply with the consent agreement.

Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble, in an emailed statement late Wednesday, said the administration was reviewing the court's ruling to determine its legal options.

"We strongly believe that the Hunt facility is not the appropriate short-term housing solution for acute mental health inmates," Gamble said. "The taxpayers' money is better spent assisting the Sheriff in getting a local facility that can house mental health inmates long-term instead of this costly and duplicative proposal."

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