How to Shrink a Jail

By reducing sky-high incarceration rates, New Orleans could build safer, stronger communities.

Story by Katy Reckdahl

Photography by Cheryl Gerber

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Soon after Michael Burns, 42, was booked for a drunk driving violation, he changed into an orange jumpsuit and was led into Orleans Parish Prison. As he entered the jail door, he passed a yellowed and tattered sign: “Caution: you are now entering a real jail.”

Like countless inmates before him, Burns understood that the warning meant that he was entering a notorious New Orleans lockup, most often referred to as OPP.

Jails can be a sign of a criminal justice system gone haywire. OPP had already been under U.S. Department of Justice oversight for five years when Burns was booked into the jail in April 2014. But, over the next eight months, Burns saw that most of the conditions that had led to the scrutiny continued unchecked: random violence, squalid conditions, scarce medical care, a constantly changing roster of guards and food delivered to each tier in a big pan, to be distributed unequally according to the whims of the tier’s lead inmate.

Particularly vivid in Burns’ mind are times when the tier burst into action, whenever a known rival arrived there, escorted by a jail guard.

As the new inmate stood at the door, the scenario was clear to everyone watching, Burns says. “The guard would see the inmates swarm at new guy,” he says, which often prompted the new inmate to balk at the door. “The guard would shove the guy in anyway. Then you’d see the inmates swarming at him and beating him up,” says Burns, who considers himself fortunate that he ended up with only a broken nose from his time there.

In other jails, where inmates are more carefully sorted, a nonviolent offender like Burns wouldn’t have been surrounded by men accused of grave violence. As a lower-risk defendant, he also might have been released.

Many inmates in Orleans Parish Prison stay in jail until their trials merely because they can’t afford to post bond.

For years, New Orleans jailed more people per capita than any other American city: 7.76 inmates per 1,000 people, according to an analysis of 2008 data by Pew Charitable Trust. Baltimore — where overcriminalization and high arrest rates reached a boiling point after the death of Freddie Gray last year — locked up 6.28 per 1,000, ranking second in comparison with Orleans. By contrast, Pew found, Cook County Jail in Chicago, though still a high-population facility, locked up only 1.88 inmates per 1,000.

At any given time, the vast majority — 85 percent — of OPP’s city inmates are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. Many sit in jail until their trials merely because they can’t afford to post bond. Certainly, some pose a risk to public safety but most moderate-risk defendants — like Burns — could be safely released until their trial date in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

In the case of those arrested on drunk driving charges, research shows that even repeat offenders can be safely released if a judge orders precautions such as regular drug testing or car ignition interlock devices, which require that high-risk drivers submit a breath sample before their cars will start. In fact, though jail time is widely used as a punishment for the deadly offense, studies have shown that jail is “among the least effective methods for controlling drunk driving.”

Burns’ wife, who is a doctor, was ready to help her husband make bond. But because he had a record as a repeat drunk driving offender, his arrest — though made without a formal sobriety test — was described as a violation of his parole. So he was held without bond for eight months before the prosecutor decided not to pursue charges and the judge ordered his release. By the time Burns walked out of OPP, his stay had cost taxpayers roughly $5,500. The money had not covered even a single screening for substance abuse or mental health issues, nor had it paid for any rehabilitation efforts.

In fact, eight months of “correctional” time left him in much worse shape. Once Burns was released, he went into a downward spiral, he says. “Anxiety and fear controlled my life. I struggled and struggled and struggled.”

Research shows that low-level offenders who are held longer do worse in the long term. When compared with defendants who are held for no more than 24 hours, those held between eight and 14 days – a drop in the bucket compared with Burns’ eight months – were more than 50 percent more likely to be rearrested before or after their cases were resolved.

Places of Last Resort

It didn’t help that Burns was held on Tier D3 of one of OPP’s worst buildings, the Old Parish Prison. Built in 1929, the gray concrete building was decaying so badly by the time Burns arrived that inmates could peel metal from old grates to fashion shanks for themselves.

Guards were an occasional presence, walking through every three or four hours, Burns estimates. There was no functional heating or cooling and if there had been, it wouldn’t have mattered, because broken windows were open to the outside. Black mold covered most of the shower walls and ceilings. The tier was loud all the time and draped with hand-washed laundry, scrubbed in the scum-lined showers and hung to dry.

“Violence was a daily occurrence,” Burns says. “Fights and beefs. Beefs from the past. Fights over food. Fights about the phone. Someone telling someone else they’re going to get stabbed tomorrow.”

A guard stands with a guard dog in the city’s new jail, which has been renamed the Orleans Justice Center. 

Moviegoers know places like this from scenes that depict a jailer who locks the door and walks away. Yet Orleans Parish Prison is hardly the only one of its kind. Three hours away, in Jackson, Mississippi, lawyer Chuck Mullins has represented a range of Hinds County Jail inmates, including a young man who died because he didn’t receive the insulin he’d been prescribed, and two brothers stabbed in a gang riot that took over an entire tier. “It’s a situation where the inmates run the asylum,” Mullins says, describing how those held in Hinds County are able to smoke marijuana, drink liquor and buy off guards with smuggled-in debit cards.

Both jails have been described as the worst in the nation by experts who have inspected them.

Out of the 3,283 local jails in the nation, only a few dozen rise to a level of federal Justice Department oversight, usually for violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Both Orleans Parish Prison and Hinds County have made the DOJ’s docket, which is made up almost entirely of local jails, along with a few state prisons.

“We’ve lost sight of what role jails were supposed to play in the justice system. They’ve become places of last resort,” says Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which launched an initiative last year to address America’s morbidly high incarceration rates by reducing the number of people fed into the system through municipal channels like OPP. (Next City receives funding support from MacArthur.)

MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge takes an unconventional approach to a problem that has over the past two years emerged as one of very few issues that both Democrats and Republicans see a need to address. Unlike other efforts that have focused on bipartisan sentencing reform on federal and state levels, the Foundation is investing in local systems reform, supporting 20 jurisdictions to take a hard look at their jail populations — and the racial and ethnic disparities within them — and to drive partnerships between jailers, courts, police and other local leaders.

Nearly 200 cities and counties applied for inclusion in the five-year, $75 million initiative. Twenty were chosen, including New Orleans as well as Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. (Hinds County did not apply.)

In April, MacArthur will choose 10 of the 20 grantees to receive between $500,000 and $2 million annually for two years, to continue their work toward “rightsizing” jails.

The 20 municipalities selected in the first round include a number of the country’s largest cities. While it’s tough to determine motivations, financial concerns are certainly foremost for many. Every year, jurisdictions spend an estimated $22 billion on jails, a huge expense in a time of shrinking municipal budgets, says Garduque.

Careful analyses, like those required by MacArthur’s initiative, can also help to spotlight how defendants face widely varying case outcomes for the same charges, depending on which courtroom they enter. For instance, in May, more than a year after Burns’ arrest, prosecutors picked up the charges again and decided to prosecute after all. But this time, a different judge gave him bail — for the exact same charge, the exact same arrest — that came with certain conditions. Burns had to undergo twice-weekly drug tests and install an ignition interlock device on his car.

By June, Burns had failed a drug test and was ordered to enter a court-recommended rehabilitation program, where he was put on medication that made him feel suicidal and profoundly depressed. By the time his daughter was born in September, he had reached a breaking point. “I found that I couldn’t be there for my daughter. My wife said, ‘You need help.’” Burns checked himself into a private rehab program, which diagnosed him as bipolar, which likely had been the underlying cause for his drinking.

His trial is now set for April 6, basically two years since his initial arrest. He is stabilized on medication that works well for him, he sees a psychiatrist regularly, and he is the father that he always envisioned he’d be, he says.

Yet even today when Burns talks about his time in OPP, he can feel his pulse quicken. “I can’t explain the fear enough,” he says. His experience turned him into an avid proponent of jail reform. “I know that jail didn’t help me — my problems were not addressed,” he says.

For the most affected communities — usually poor, minority neighborhoods — reform could spell particular relief, says Nancy Fishman, the project director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan research institution that is partnering with MacArthur on the Safety and Justice Initiative. “If you think of the 12 million admissions to jails every year and all of the people who come in and out, they come more from certain communities than others — it’s a long-term death by a thousand cuts,” she says.

In the city of New Orleans’ initial application to MacArthur, these effects were highlighted. “The deeply negative impact on communities, particularly those of color, is the primary reason New Orleans is prioritizing jail-population reduction,” the application read.

A System That Touches Billions of Americans

On any given day, the nation’s jails hold an average of 731,000 people, one-third of people behind bars in the nation on that day.

Over a year’s time, as people cycle through, the nation’s jails admit nearly 12 million people, a number comparable to the populations of New York and Los Angeles combined, Vera’s research shows. That’s nearly 20 times more than state and federal prisons admit each year.

If you include the parents, children and loved ones of those incarcerated, jails touch billion of Americans.

Despite falling crime rates, the number of people held in U.S. jails has more than quadrupled over the past 45 years, according to Vera’s latest analysis. In 1970, only 21 counties had “super jails” of more than 1,000 beds. By 2014, 145 counties had them, with the most growth occurring in small to midsize communities.

New Orleans was a poster child for jail growth during that era. In 1970, the year that Johnny Cash crooned about his dark-haired girl held in Orleans Parish Prison, the jail held about 800 inmates. Over the next 35 years, the jail’s bed count metastasized to more than 7,500 at its peak in 2004, when it stood as the nation’s ninth-largest jail, as ranked by the number of inmates it held.

When the jail flooded catastrophically in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, those jail beds were filled with local inmates along with thousands of Louisiana state prisoners that the Orleans Parish sheriff was paid to keep.

To hold all of the lucrative prisoners, the jail near Interstate 10 in the city’s Mid-City neighborhood had swallowed a large swath of the neighborhood’s main commercial spine, claiming a vacant motel, fire station, office building and elementary school, among other buildings, as it expanded, with the help of inmate labor.

Hinds County Jail received national attention in the early 1960s, when Freedom Riders packed its cells after being arrested in Jackson en route to desegregate public facilities across the South. A key civil rights anthem, “I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom,” a revision of a traditional hymn, was first sung in the roughly 150-bed facility.

A new jail building constructed in 1974 added 192 more beds. But by 1994, another detention center had opened, quadrupling the county’s available jail beds.

But keeping more people for longer stays defies the basic purpose of a jail. While some people held in jail are serving short sentences of up to a year, nearly two-thirds of jail inmates are pre-trial, so they’re presumed innocent under the law but either can’t afford bail or have been refused it. Though some inmates are violent and considered a risk to public safety, Vera found that 75 percent of pre-trial and sentenced inmates were booked into jail on low-level property, traffic, drug or public-order offenses. Most are low-income.

Many OPP inmates are booked into jail on non-violent crimes. 

Still, few public officials have compared local jail populations. Jailers know how many inmates they have in their custody, but they don’t generally know the proportion of the county’s residents they lock up. Those studying municipal incarceration practices lacked what John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Jeremy Travis called “an essential national yardstick.” (Meanwhile, state incarceration rates are well documented and regularly compared. Because of this widely used, standard metric, it’s long been clear that Louisiana boasts the nation’s highest incarceration rate; when the national incarceration reached 1 in 100 adults for the first time in 2008, Louisiana’s stood at nearly twice that rate, at 1 in 55.)

Now that same sort of analysis can be done about local jails. In December, Vera debuted an online jail-incarceration database that includes 14 million data points about local jails. Type in a county’s name and you can view a breakdown of that jurisdiction’s jail population over time and by race and gender. For those interested in comparisons with cities of similar size or with similar jail populations, the database allows comparisons by factors like race or inmates’ average length of stay.

New Orleans, for instance, locked up 861.4 people out of 100,000 in 2014, while Hinds, which has brought down its population due to DOJ scrutiny, has a rate of 88.8 out of 100,000.

Looking specifically at African-Americans, Orleans had an incarceration rate of 1,226.4 per 100,000 in 2014, while Hinds was at 94.7, down dramatically from 788.6 in 2008. Despite recent overall reductions, Miami-Dade’s rate for African-Americans in 2014 still stood at 665.6, much higher than its overall rate of 276.2. The rate in Chicago, for Cook County, was even more disproportionate: 835.1 for African-Americans and 281.1 overall.

The database represents a huge leap forward in the battle to shrink jails. Up until now, there have been few tools to help cities understand how their incarceration practices compare to national standards.

The online resource shows how “everyone has a jail problem,” Fishman says. But it’s rarely the same problem: Some counties have long length-of-stays, indicating that cases are moving more slowly or jail exits have stalled; other counties may look good because they have low overall incarceration rates, but upon closer inspection, Fishman can see that they incarcerate a high rate of black residents or women.

To get the right lens for each analysis, Vera’s tool allows for comparisons with counties with similar arrest rates or income levels. “It allows you to ask better questions, though it doesn’t always answer those questions,” Fishman says.

“People will always say, ‘We’re different,’” she adds. In some places, that has been a barrier to reform, because policymakers don’t believe that their local criminal justice system can operate like systems in other cities. Still, other places welcome the context. “Sometimes, people feel a little relief to hear that others are struggling with this process and here’s what they’ve done,” Fishman says.

Though jail violence and neglect most often make headlines, MacArthur’s new initiative focuses on how a jail is used: who is admitted there and how long they stay. It does that by “system-mapping” — basically creating flowcharts that map what happens to each person ensnared in the system, starting before arrest and moving through release. Through her work at Vera, Fishman has seen many local system maps. “There’s not a single one that looks similar,” she says. “They are like those children’s adventure books, where you make one decision and it can lead to three separate impacts.”

MacArthur didn’t pick easy sites. Of the initiative’s first 20 cities, 11 have jails that have either been through a Justice Department investigation or are operating under a DOJ consent decree or settlement agreement, Garduque says.

And certainly, everything is interrelated. On one hand, MacArthur’s awards aren’t designed to solve the entrenched problems that continue to cause problems at OPP and other jails: squabbling over budgets and maintenance, disputes about how healthcare is accessed or how the jail’s guards are trained. But lower jail populations can ease overcrowding, which leads to poor conditions. Smaller jails also are less costly, allowing more money to be spent on programming and facility improvements that can affect conditions.

Making Decisions With Data

In New Orleans, system-mapping helped officials understand that, according to city law, arrests for certain misdemeanors were required but probably unnecessary. After changing city ordinances to allow citations for certain petty crimes, police began issuing court summonses instead of arresting people. In 2010, the first year that police focused on citations in lieu of arrest, the New Orleans Police Department locked up nearly 10,000 fewer people than the previous year. “That’s the beginning of the funnel — who’s going in,” Fishman says.

Following Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans was faced with the gargantuan task of rebuilding its jail, there was much debate about how large the new complex should be. The MacArthur initiative had not yet begun, but in 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu formed a task force with a similar goal: determining how the jail beds should be used and, ultimately, what capacity made sense.

The task force included basically everyone with power in the city’s criminal justice system — the sheriff, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, lawmakers and analysts.

Whenever task-force members seemed to waiver or showed reluctance to downsize the jail, they were pressured by the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, a tightly organized grassroots group that included former inmates and family members able to vividly describe the jail’s poor conditions. As coalition members handed out pamphlets on street corners, spoke with neighborhood groups and churches, and testified before the City Council, the group emphasized Pew’s data showing that New Orleans was the nation’s (and thus the world’s) incarceration capital. Coalition members also carefully tracked all deaths and injuries in the jail, tying the two issues together with the group’s mantra: “A smaller jail is a safer jail.”

Through the task force’s process, some judges acknowledged that they had used time in jail as an adult version of a timeout, particularly for people who tested positive on drug tests. “I used jail space to change behavior, regardless of whether the city was paying for it, regardless of how it drives jail size. And I did it without a thought,” says retired Judge Calvin Johnson, part of the mayor’s jail population task force. Though Johnson knows intellectually that sending an addict to jail for a month or a weekend doesn’t further their rehabilitation process, no one ever questioned his practice, because there were unlimited jail beds. “Jail space drives policy,” says Johnson, an early and outspoken advocate for a smaller jail.

Retired judge Calvin Johnson stands in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. 

Ultimately, the group was able to reduce the jail’s capacity by 80 percent. Today, the city has closed down all but one of the jail’s flood-damaged and temporary buildings, including the one where Burns was held, and moved most inmates into a brand-new 1,438-bed jail. The $150 million building is a relief for jail advocates and inmates alike, though there’s still much work to do to bring the jail into compliance with the Justice Department’s consent decree.

For instance, healthcare is one area where complaints still persist. “The only thing that is better are the living conditions themselves,” says Glend Ford, 41, an insulin-dependent diabetic who was recently released from the new jail after being arrested on a probation violation. When he was booked into the jail, he reported his two diabetes medications and the dosages, he says. But the jail’s infirmary changed that prescription to a cheaper alternative, one that had previously caused dangerously low blood sugar in Ford. He refused to take the alternative and instead had to cope with blood sugar that rose to high levels every day, all day for two weeks, he says.

The new Orleans Parish Prison opened in September 2015 and was renamed the Orleans Justice Center. But a March 18 report found that compliance with a federal consent decree had decreased.

Other threats to inmate safety remain unresolved as well. At a federal court hearing in February, the DOJ’s lead monitor Susan McCampbell described “absolutely unacceptable” levels of violence in the jail. McCampbell testified that, initially, she was hopeful that a new jail would mean decreased violence. “I’m here to tell you that hasn’t happened,” she told a judge, noting that a medical log revealed that the sheriff’s office had failed to report as many as 119 incidents, including “traumatic injuries” such as broken hands and wounds that required stitches.

The reports have been bleak from the new jail building, which the sheriff dubbed the Orleans Justice Center. A March 18 report outlined how compliance with a federal consent decree had decreased despite the new environs, findings that frustrated attorney Katie Schwartzmann from the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, who had originally filed suit against the jail in 2012 on behalf of OPP inmates.

“Four years into this lawsuit, OPP remains a disaster,” Schwartzmann wrote in a statement. “Moving into a shiny, expensive new jail building didn’t fix the fundamental lack of vision and leadership at the sheriff’s office.”

The sheriff’s office issued its own response to the report, contending that the sheriff had maintained “partial compliance” in 98 areas and had decreased the number of “noncompliance items” by half. That left 61 items in the noncompliance category, the sheriff’s office wrote.

The sheriff’s office is not entirely alone in its opposition to the hard-fought smaller jail. Last month, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced support for a larger jail. This was consistent with Cannizzaro’s earlier position, several years ago. What would happen, he asked then, if a rapist was arrested and the new, more efficient jail was full?

Yet today, Cannizzaro is an active participant in the ongoing MacArthur-funded reform process, which has continued and expanded the work that the task force began. The DA’s office has been instrumental in some aspects of jail reform, including an early program that expedited the cases of defendants facing crimes without a victim, typically drug crimes. As one of the quirks of the local system, the DA’s office in Orleans is given a certain amount of what’s called “DA time” before making a decision about each defendant’s case. Since the law allows 60 days to make charging decisions on felony charges and 45 days on misdemeanors, prosecutors would usually wait until the time was almost elapsed before making decisions on any case.

Soon after the expedited screening program began, the time from arrest to arraignment for those selected “victimless” cases dropped drastically, from 64 days to 10.5 days.

The court’s habitual use of bail bonds is a sticking point and one that is particularly impactful given the large population of non-violent arrestees who could go home if they could afford to make bail. Ideally, a judge would only set bond for a defendant if he is a risk to public safety or if he is unlikely to make it to his next court date. But heeding each defendant’s constitutional right to be released would be a big change in the way local judges are used to operating and put a dent into the business of the city’s bail bondsmen, some of whom regularly donate large sums of money to the campaign funds of local judges, who, like the sheriff, are elected.

To encourage judges to rely less on bonds, the criminal district court, with the help of Vera, set up a new pre-trial services program. When each defendant makes his first court appearance before a magistrate judge, Vera supplies the judge with a risk assessment that took into consideration each person’s criminal history, gun arrests, employment, family and mental illness.

A medical log revealed that the sheriff's office had failed to report “traumatic injuries” at the OPP such as broken hands and wounds that required stiches.

Sometimes, getting people to show up in court is as simple as making phone calls to defendants on the day before a court date or instituting an automated phone-reminder system, which New Orleans now uses, Fishman says. “Some people need a little bit more work to get them to show up,” she says. “But few of these people are El Chapo, waiting for Sean Penn to find them. They’re in the community. And they’re facing low-level charges.”

These step-by-step local processes may seem slow. But over time, they can drastically reduce jail populations. For instance, researchers have found that a drop in the New York state prison population can be largely attributed to work done to reduce jail populations in New York City.

In Louisiana, an outcome like this would likely be appealing to newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is facing a massive state budget deficit. Recently, he announced that reducing the state’s sky-high incarceration rate (and its prison spending) was a priority for the upcoming legislative session. “Having the (nation’s) highest incarceration rate isn’t leading to safer streets and communities,” he said.

For Fishman, it’s clear statewide efforts can benefit from smart use of jails in New Orleans, where nearly 16 percent of all Louisiana prisoners originate. “If you can keep people from going into jail in the first place, you’re going to see downstream impacts,” Fishman says.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans-based news reporter who is a frequent contributor to the New Orleans Advocate and the Hechinger Report and has written for The Times-Picayune, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Weather Channel, The Nation, Next City, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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Cheryl Gerber is a freelance journalist and documentary photographer working in New Orleans, where she was born. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times, the Associated Press, New Orleans Magazine, and has been a staff photographer for Gambit Weekly since 1994. During the past two decades, Cheryl has won several awards from the New Orleans Press Club for her work on social issues and news photography.

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