Rebuilding a Jail, Orleans Parish Thinks Small

Community and Hurricane Katrina force a radical rethinking of criminal justice.

Prisoners from New Orleans Parish Prison sit on a freeway overpass on Sept. 1, 2005, after their jail was evacuated by authorities. (Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters)

Aug 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Abandoned by correctional staff when Hurricane Katrina hit, inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison stood chest-deep in sewage-tainted floodwater for as long as four days before they were rescued. On the eve of the 2005 storm, the jail held nearly 6,300 inmates, and leeches, rodents, mold, and unexplained deaths were its hallmarks. That year, the city’s incarceration rate was more than five times the national figure—which itself is the world’s highest.

The storm offered many of New Orleans’ institutions an opportunity to change, but in the case of its criminal justice system, there soon came a demand from the community that its city come to terms with its status as the incarceration capital of the world. The destruction wreaked by the floodwaters laid bare a corrections facility that could no longer be sustained. Many of the buildings in the jail complex were beyond repair and did not reopen. Inmates, including thousands locked up pretrial because they couldn’t afford bail and others serving years-long sentences, were transferred to a series of temporary tent-like structures—where all incoming defendants and convicts are sent today while a new facility is under construction. Since Katrina, a coalition of grassroots organizers that has demonstrated a surprising amount of power and political savvy, as well as a lawsuit, have pushed local officials into a challenging debate about how to diminish the city’s knee-jerk reliance on incarceration as a remedy for all crime.

Results so far are impressive: The average daily jail population has dropped 67 percent since just before Katrina, from 6,000 to 1,900 inmates, according to data compiled by two nonpartisan research outfits, The Data Center and the Vera Institute of Justice. Meanwhile, crime rates in the city have declined.

In 2012, the city launched the New Orleans Pretrial Services program, and it became a key element in decreasing the number of inmates at the jail. The program helps judges assess arrestees so they can decide who needs to be detained and who poses less of a risk to the community.

The former Orleans Parish Prison, left, was home to leeches and rats even before Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood largely destroyed it. Its replacement, right, will hold a quarter as many inmates. (Photos: Google Earth; Twitter)

The coalition and others in the community challenged a 2010 proposal to build a 5,832-bed jail complex that would replace the facilities destroyed by Katrina. Many knew firsthand the damage that the city’s incarceration addiction had done. Organized under the name Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, the group pushed the mayor and city council members to build a smaller jail. Its logic was that whatever size it ended up being, the jail would be filled—so stakeholders needed to think smaller. The coalition convinced the parish to instead build a jail with just 1,438 beds. A consent decree following a Department of Justice investigation meanwhile forced officials to overhaul the conditions of the jail complex—a process that is ongoing.

Inside the newly constructed Orleans Parish Prison.
(Image: YouTube)

Today, the OPPRC is fighting its next battle: a plan from the parish sheriff to build a 600-bed facility next door to the jail to house mentally ill inmates. Activists say jail is no place for the mentally ill and suggest that the city’s new hospital is a better-suited environment. Time will tell whether the city continues to demonstrate a commitment to keeping its incarceration rate down and to acknowledge the role a functional criminal justice system can play as the community continues to heal.