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New Orleans jail expansion sees more opposition during public planning commission meeting

 Orleans Justice Center
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
Orleans Justice Center

Not a single public comment submitted on the expansion of the Orleans Justice Center was in support of the project during a streamed New Orleans City Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, when officials discussed possible recommendations for the City Council to either approve or deny a conditional land use permit.

“The mentally ill are overpoliced in this country, particularly in New Orleans,” Becca Chapman wrote about Phase III, which plans to build a separate psychiatric facility to house detainees with severe mental illness at the New Orleans jail. Several others echoed her protest.

Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, or OPPRC, said that a new jail facility would not positively contribute to the New Orleans community’s “fabric.”

Others pushed for increased funding for mental health care in communities so that people living with mental illness do not end up incarcerated and pointed to the trauma that incarceration can cause the mentally ill.

The controversial project, which has resulted in legal battles and protest, has faced opposition from criminal justice advocates and even some city officials. Advocates say that the new facility would ultimately result in more people and more vulnerable populations behind bars, while Mayor LaToya Cantrell has argued that the expansion is too costly.

After voting on two failed motions, one in opposition to the permit’s approval and another in favor, the Commission submitted the zoning docket item to City Council without any recommendations.

Commissioner Kathleen Lunn put forth a motion to deny the zoning docket as she questioned the need for increased jail capacity when the city has seen a successful decline in its jail population.

A motion to approve the conditional use permit was submitted by Commissioner Kelly Brown, who pointed to the fact that a U.S. federal judge ordered the City of New Orleans to move forward with construction of Phase III, as it meets criteria laid out in a federal consent decree.

Commissioner Jonathan Stewart seconded that motion and suggested that the extra capacity that the jail would have could be a safety measure in the event that the city needs to use it to detain people.

The Commission is a citizen board, appointed by the Mayor and approved by City Council, that makes recommendations to Council on issues dealing with development in the city. But ultimately, the decision to approve the jail’s land use permit will be left up to the City Council.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick