NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Busloads of New Orleans inmates arrived at a new $150 million jail Monday, a long-awaited transfer from a dilapidated, notoriously dangerous prison complex as tensions continued between the sheriff who runs the lockup, the city that pays for it and the inmates' advocates.
"We are moving into the 21st century," Sheriff Marlin Gusman said during a news conference outside the new jail prior to the arrival of the first prisoners. The transfer of more than 1,200 inmates is expected to be completed by the end of the week.
Gusman has touted the completion of the new facility as a major step in complying with court-ordered reforms. Security cameras and improved lines of sight are expected to provide for better security and inmate supervision. That will be a major improvement over the old jail complex where drug use, violence and inmate suicides were documented in federal court hearings. The evidence included an inmate-made video that showed a weapon and intravenous drug use.
Federal Emergency Management Agency money covered most of the costs of the new facility, Gusman said, noting that the old jail was seriously damaged when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
Gusman, the city's elected sheriff is in charge of operating the jail. He reached a court-backed 2012 agreement for reforms to settle a lawsuit with inmates and the U.S. Justice Department.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has been in a long-running legal and political battle with Gusman over the reform costs and jail management.
The opening of the 433,409-square-foot facility doesn't settle the disputes.
One issue is the new facility's capacity. It's built to hold more than 1,400 prisoners, but given the need to separate some prisoners from the general population, it will likely hold fewer than 1,300 at any given time. The old lockup's population is often several hundred more than that.
Gusman, who wants the city to build more space for inmates, drew sharp criticism from the administration and inmate lawyers last week when — in preparation for closing down the old facilities — he announced the transfer of 180 pre-trial inmates to jails in north Louisiana parishes. The city soon asked a federal judge to block more such moves. Advocates for inmates complained that the transfer puts inmates several hours away from the New Orleans courthouse and their lawyers.
Gusman's critics say he should first require the state to house state convicts now being held in the city lockup, rather than moving local inmates.
Gusman says the criticism is shortsighted.
"I think what you have to do is assess your priorities," Gusman said Monday.
Many of the state inmates, who are held in the city at state expense, were on probation or parole when they were arrested for new crimes for which they are awaiting trial, he said. Others are close to completing their sentences and have been moved back to New Orleans to prepare for transition to freedom in a program he credits with reducing recidivism.