Help Not Handcuffs: Mentally Ill Individuals in New Orleans Deserve Better

New Orleans Police Department Vehicle” by danxoneil is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People suffering from mental health issues in New Orleans deserve help not handcuffs. They need professionals with mental health training, not guns, to provide them with medical care that will solve the problems they are dealing with, not worsen them. 

Adults with untreated severe mental health issues generate one in ten calls to the police and occupy one in five of America’s prison and jail beds. Even worse, 25% of fatal police encounters involve a person with a severe mental illness being killed. 

Sade Dumas, the Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), explained “Police interactions during mental health crises are financially costly, emotionally draining, and often violent. Studies show that the risk of death from police intervention is seven to sixteen times greater for people with mental illness than for those without, particularly those with untreated mental illness.” 

OPPRC has been holding  ‘Help Not Handcuffs’ Learn and Share community events virtually and in-person so participants can learn about alternatives for mental health care, discuss personal interactions with the police, and explore methods to make sure individuals suffering from mental health crises receive medical care, not handcuffs. 

They are currently spearheading a campaign to encourage the city of New Orleans to build wellness centers and create a non-police response unit dedicated to responding to mental health crises.

“By pushing for a crisis response unit comprised of mental healthcare professionals in place of armed New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers, we can make sure neighbors in crisis can call 9-1-1 without the fear of further endangering our community,” commented Dumas. “As evidenced by crisis assistance groups like CAHOOTS, there are alternatives to policing initiatives that have proven to be effective across the country. New Orleans is ready for a non-police crisis response team. We’re calling on community members—especially those most impacted by over-policing and mental illness—to join us as we make our vision for the future a reality.”

The biggest roadblock in the OPPRC’s way? 

The New Orleans Phase III psychiatric jail facility. 

This deeply controversial facility is opposed by social justice advocates, many New Orleanians, the entire New Orleans City Council, and the Mayor’s Office, and yet, because of a recent ruling by a federal judge, it is still slated to be built. 

The project originated from a federal consent decree that identified unconstitutional conditions in the city’s jail, specifically addressing the need for appropriate housing for individuals suffering from mental illnesses. 

For years, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has tried to expand the jail past its mandated capacity by advocating for an additional psychiatric jail building. This consent decree provided an opportunity to do just that. By not adding consent decree-compliant accommodations to previous constructions, Gusman ensured New Orleans would have to build an additional consent decree-compliant building, which will be the 89-bed Phase III psychiatric jail facility. 

Sheriff Gusman requested $84 million from the City Council to construct Phase III over a three-year period. It was estimated that Phase III would cost an additional $8-10 million in taxpayer dollars to operate. This substantial amount of funding would make a significant difference in community programs that could more effectively solve mental health crises. 

An alternative plan that has been widely endorsed by advocates would use $10 million to retrofit the existing jail building, saving New Orleans $184 million in construction, maintenance, and staffing costs over 35 years. 

It would also offer a constitutional solution for helping those with mental illnesses within one year. The City could use brick-and-mortar restricted FEMA funds to build a community wellness center for people with serious mental illnesses outside of the carceral system. The City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting this retrofit plan. 

Early in 2020, New Orleans suspended the Phase III jail facility project, filing to request a modification of prior court orders, citing financial constraints from COVID-19, a significantly reduced jail population, and the ability to meet constitutional standards in the current facilities.  

In late 2020, federal judges recommended the city expand the jail and build the Phase III psychiatric facility. In January 2021, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ruled the city must move forward with Phase III construction. 

He wrote, “high time for the City to live up to its word” and that  “the incarcerated of Orleans Parish have waited far too long for the care they need and to which they are entitled—care that the City agreed to provide.”

The city of New Orleans is appealing the court’s decision. They filed a Notice of Appeal to the court order to build a new jail building in March 2021. The appeal details that the city was responding to what was described to them as an “immediate emergency need” to build out accommodations for OPSO’s incarcerated population that suffers from mental illnesses. 

New Orleans invested $6.2 million into renovating the Temporary Detention Center for this purpose, along with delivering specialized spaces to the OPSO to accommodate 62 incarcerated people for this “emergency.”

Yet, to date, there is a completely empty unit in the newly renovated TDC buildings. The jail population is around 900 incarcerated people, while the existing  OJC Phase II jail facility has 1,438 beds. This number does not include the additional beds in the TDC facilities. 

Not only would an expansion of the jail facilities be unnecessary because of the excess of beds in the existing facilities, but it would also exacerbate OPSO’s long-standing staffing problems, which have led to issues for the department staffing its current facilities. 

“While the Prison Litigation Reform Act prevents the Court from ordering the City to build a new jail building, the Court has nevertheless demanded and ordered, with threats of harsh penalties for the City, that the City proceed with building a new jail building to expand the jail in Orleans Parish,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “While the City of New Orleans is responsible for funding the jail, it is important for our community to also know that the OPSO currently has one of the best-funded jails of its size in the United States of America, notwithstanding our very limited resources as a City. No evidence has been offered to refute this fact.”

New Orleans’ mental health care crisis will not be fixed by an extra building for the city’s jail. In fact, not only is the facility not a solution to the city’s mental health care crisis, it’s a deterrent to any real solution because it will tie up the city’s time and money. 

Join OPPRC on Thursday, May 20 at 6 PM for an Orleans Justice Center Medical Services Building Phase III Public Meeting. The meeting will be hosted by the architecture firm hired by the city to construct Phase III and is an excellent opportunity for the public to protest the facility’s construction, demanding “Help not handcuffs!”

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