The Incarceration Capital of the US

school 2 prison sign A struggle over the size of New Orleans’ jail could define the city’s future

New Orleans’ criminal justice system is at a crossroads. A new mayor and police
 chief say they want to make major changes, and the police department is facing 
lawsuits and federal investigations that may profoundly change the department.
  But a simultaneous, and less publicized, struggle is being waged and the results 
will likely define the city’s justice system for a generation: the city’s jail, damaged 
in Katrina, needs to be replaced. City leaders must now decide how big the new 
institution will be.

At first, it seemed like an expansion of OPP was inevitable. This is a city with one
of the highest rates of violent crime in the US, and politicians rarely lose votes
by calling for more jail cells. But in a city that has led the nation in incarceration, 
residents across race and class lines are questioning fundamental assumptions
about what works in criminal justice.

With 3,500 beds in a city of about 350,000 residents, Orleans Parish Prison (OPP)
is already the largest per capita county jail of any major US city. Sheriff Marlin
 Gusman, the elected official with oversight over the jail, has submitted plans for
an even larger complex. A broad coalition is seeking to take the city in a different
direction. They want a smaller facility, and they are demanding that the money that
would be spent on a larger jail be diverted to alternatives to incarceration, like drug 
treatment programs and mental health facilities. With the first public hearings on
the issue scheduled for this week, the battle is heating up.

Criminal justice experts and community leaders are speaking in support of a smaller jail. This is an issue that has allowed the religious foundation Baptist Community Ministries and prison abolition organizers from Critical Resistance to find common ground. The online activist group also recently joined in the conversation, with an appeal that has generated hundreds of emails to the mayor and city council. “In all the work we’ve been doing on criminal justice reform, this is definitely a pivotal moment,” says Rosana Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. “We’re finally getting local and state government to think about public safety from a perspective of real safety, not an incarceration perspective.”

The OPP Reform Coalition, a pre-Katrina alliance that has recently been revitalized, has led the campaign. In September, when it seemed like the prison expansion was proceeding without public debate, they took out a full-page ad in the city’s daily paper listing other things that the money spent on OPP could be spent on. The ad featured an assortment of New Orleanians - including musicians, local politicians, community leaders, and members of the cast and crew of the HBO show Treme. The diverse assembly of public figures not only signed the ad, but also helped pay for it, donating $22.39 each, the amount that the jail currently charges the city for every prisoner. In the aftermath of the ad, attention turned to a working group formed by the mayor to address the issue. That body is expected to make its recommendations this month.

Incarceration Industry

Orleans Parish Prison is a giant complex in Midcity New Orleans, made up of several buildings spread across a dozen blocks employing nearly a thousand nonunion workers. The city jail is a small empire under the absolute control of the city Sheriff, who can use jail employees for election campaigns, and send out prisoners to work for local businesses. The majority of the metropolitan area’s mental health facilities are also located within the jail, meaning that for many who have mental health issues, the jail is their only option for treatment.
Louisiana’s incarceration rate is by far the highest in the world – more than ten
times higher than most European countries, and twenty times higher than Japan.

Pre-Katrina, OPP had 7,200 beds. In a city with a population of about 465,000, this came to about one bed for every sixty-five city residents. Neighboring Jefferson Parish has 100,000 more people than Orleans Parish, and has only 900 beds. Caddo Parish – in the northeast of the state - has more violent crime, but still imprisons far less people. If OPP had the same number of beds as the national average of one for every 388 residents, the jail’s capacity would shrink to about 850.

Aside from its size, OPP is unique in other ways. Under the terms of a lawsuit over
prison conditions filed in 1969, the jail’s budget is based on a per-diem paid by
the city for every inmate in prison. The more people locked in OPP, the higher
the funding Sheriff Gusman has at his disposal. “Our current funding structure
is creating a perverse incentive to lock more people up,” explains Dana Kaplan,
the director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a criminal justice advocacy
organization and member of the OPP Reform Coalition.

The institution of OPP is also exceptional in that it is a county jail and a state
prison combined into one entity. About 2,700 people in the jail are mostly pre-trial
 detainees - the majority being held for drug possession, traffic violations, public
drunkenness, or other nonviolent offenses - and are legally innocent. An additional
eight hundred people are state prisoners who have been convicted in court, who
may spend years or even decades at OPP.

Almost 60,000 people passed through OPP in the last twelve months, a staggering figure for a city of this size. The average length of stay was 20 days. The largest portion of pre-trial prisoners in the jail are there for nonviolent, municipal
offenses that even under conservative standards should not warrant jail time,
including 20,000 arrests this year for traffic violations. “New Orleans is basically
the incarceration capital of the world,” says Kaplan. “You’re hard-pressed to find
a resident of New Orleans – especially in poor communities - that hasn’t had their
lives disrupted in some way by this institution.”
An article by journalist Ethan Brown in one of the city’s weekly papers 
noted, “thanks to the profound misallocation of law enforcement resources in New
Orleans, you're more likely to end up in Orleans Parish Prison for a traffic offense
than for armed robbery or murder.” Ultimately, this struggle over the size of the jail
is also about the city’s incarceration priorities. If the city builds a larger jail, it will
have to keep filling it with tens of thousands of people. If a smaller facility is built, it
will change who is arrested in the city, and how long they spend behind bars.

Because much of the jail was underwater during Katrina, many of the buildings
have either been closed or need massive renovation. By one estimate, the new
jail that the sheriff seeks would cost 250 million dollars, much of that to come
in reimbursements from FEMA. The sheriff has yet to reveal how much of the
construction costs would come from federal dollars, although the state chapter of
the ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the information. Even
if most of the construction were paid for by FEMA, as the Sheriff has indicated, the
continued upkeep would fall to the city.

Sheriff Gusman did not respond to requests for comment, but he has said, at a
meeting of mayor’s task force on the jail, “I’ve always advocated for a smaller
facility,” and spoke of being satisfied with 4,200 beds. The plans he has submitted to various planning bodies, however, indicate otherwise.

The Sheriff has issued several conflicting statements and reports about the size of
the jail he is seeking, as well as where the funding will come from. A Justice Facilities Master Plan, prepared in collaboration with the Sheriff’s office, called for 8,000 beds, which would give the jail capacity to imprison nearly one of every 40 people currently in the city. A planning document recently prepared by the Sheriff called for 5,800 beds. No plans or public documents issued by his office have called for building a jail smaller than the current facility.

Spotlight on Abuse

With seven reported deaths in jail this year, OPP is under the spotlight for violent
and abusive treatment of prisoners. A September 2009 report from the US
Department of Justice (DOJ) found, "conditions at OPP violate the constitutional
rights of inmates." The DOJ went on to document "a pattern and practice of unnecessary and inappropriate use of force by OPP correctional officers,”
including "several examples where OPP officers openly engaged in abusive and
retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to prisoners. In some
instances, the investigation found, the officers' conduct was so flagrant it clearly
constituted calculated abuse."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people who had not been
convicted of any crime were lost in the city’s prison system. Last month a jury
awarded two men from Ohio a $650,000 judgment for their treatment after the
storm. The men were on a road trip and stopped in New Orleans for a drink on
Bourbon Street. They were arrested for public drunkenness and spent a month
disappeared in the system, without being allowed even one phone call to their

In a city under fiscal crisis, advocates have focused not only on the decades of
evidence that mass incarceration has only made people in the city feel less safe, but also on the financial costs of this massive jail. In addition to calling for reforms that would cause less people to be locked up, the reform coalition demands that, “funds dedicated to building a bigger jail must be reallocated to building the infrastructure of a caring community, including recreational, educational, mental health, and affordable housing facilities.”

“Parents are crying out, saying where’s the recreation for our children?” explains
 Andrea Slocum, an organizer with Critical Resistance. Slocum says that when she
talks to city residents, the idea of redirecting money from the prison has wide

“It’s an exciting time for the city in a lot of ways,” says Michael Jacobson of the
 Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization that has been advising the City, 
including the Sheriff. Jacobson, who served as correction commissioner for New
York City in the mid-90s, managed to reduce the population of New York City’s
jail system even in the midst of the mass arrests of the Giuliani administration. He
 believes similar change is possible in New Orleans. “You can’t create or innovate
unless you're willing to step out and change what you’re doing,” he says. The Vera 
Institute has received funding from the US Department of Justice for a pre-trial
services program that has reduced incarceration in other cities, and they project 
New Orleans will also be able to see a reduction.

But the drive to build more jail cells is hard to stop, and many barriers remain.
  Sheriffs in Louisiana have no term limits, and there are few leverages on their
influence. Sheriff Gusman was first elected in 2004 and has faced little opposition
since then. The previous Criminal Sheriff held the position for 30 years, only leaving when he ran for state Attorney General.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s department has begun construction on a building to hold
400 additional beds. He initially told reporters that he would close other facilities
and the new construction would not add up to additional capacity. However, in a
letter to the State Bond Commission, he predicted increased revenue from holding
additional inmates.

Advocates believe that the tide is beginning to turn, but the new construction
already underway indicates that there is still a lot of work to be done and not much
time. “We really need to keep the pressure on and the momentum consistent,” says Rosana Cruz. “They’ll shake our hands and make these promises but mean while these deals are being made behind closed doors.”

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. He
was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience, and
his award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of
outlets including the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina's Clarin
newspaper. He has produced news segments for Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now, and appeared as a guest on CNN Morning, Anderson Cooper 360, and Keep Hope Alive with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. His new book is FLOODLI NES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at, and more information about Floodlines can be found at Jordan is currently traveling with the Community and Resistance Tour. For more information on the tour, see

Photo by Abdul Aziz

Links and Resources Mentioned in article:
Upcoming Public Meetings on jail size:
Tuesday,  Nov 9      6:30-8:30 p.m.     Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School, 1617 Caffin Ave.
Thursday, Nov. 11   6-8 pm                Dryades YMCA, 2220 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd
Action from
Vera Institute of Justice:
Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana:
VOTE (Voice Of The Ex-offender):
Critical Resistance: