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New Orleans Rebuilds Prisons Amid Calls for Reform

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New Orleans Rebuilds Prisons Amid Calls for Reform

Katrina & Beyond

New Orleans Rebuilds Prisons Amid Calls for Reform

New Orleans Rebuilds Prisons Amid Calls for Reform

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FEMA-supplied tents will be used to temporarily house inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison. Eve Troeh hide caption

toggle caption Eve Troeh

FEMA-supplied tents will be used to temporarily house inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison.

Eve Troeh

Thousands of prisoners from New Orleans have been held in jails around Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. They are now returning to the city's prison, a temporary holding facility built by FEMA. But many public-safety advocates say New Orleans needs to reform its prison system instead of rebuilding it.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some Evacuees from New Orleans are finally returning home, though they may not be happy about it. The sheriff announced plans to return about 1,000 jail inmates. They were scattered around Louisiana after Katrina flooded the Orleans Parish Prison. Now for their homecoming, the inmates are staying in high-tech tents built with federal help. Their exodus and return is prompting some residents to ask why New Orleans puts so many people in jail to begin with?

Eve Troeh reports from New Orleans.

EVE TROEH: Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans put more people in prison than any other city in the country.

Ms. KATIE SCHWARTZMANN (Lawyer, American Civil Liberties Union): You know, the real question is why do we have so many people incarcerated in this city?

TROEH: Katie Schwartzmann is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana. She says 60 percent of the inmates at Orleans Parish Prison were there for unpaid fines and fees, traffic violations or municipal charges.

Ms. SCHWARTZMANN: These are minor things that a police officer could write a person a citation for, and say show back up for court. Instead we incarcerate them in New Orleans.

TROEH: The prison used to hold up to 8,000 inmates in a sprawling complex of 12 buildings. The sheriff's office has been able to re-open just a few of those; enough to hold about 2,000 people, and this month another thousand inmates swill return. Sheriff Marlin Gusman expects the prison to grow even bigger.

Mr. MARLIN GUSMAN (Sheriff, Orleans Parish): We'll probably be somewhere under 4,000.

TROEH: One Federal Bureau of Justice study says the city of New Orleans' current size should have as few as 500 inmates. Sheriff Gusman says he hopes the city will get there someday, but it won't be anytime soon.

Mr. GUSMAN: Why does it have to be so big? Because we have the demand. Anyone whom the judges feel needs to be incarcerated, we're going to find the space. And I don't think that we ought to force judges into decisions by not having enough space.

Mr. COREY TURNER (Chairman, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition): The sheriff needs to take a leadership position in this and say, look, I want to look at alternatives to incarceration.

TROEH: Corey Turner is chairman of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. He says it's up to the sheriff to create more options for judges to use.

Mr. TURNER: A person, instead of being housed in the jail, goes to substance abuse programming, literacy, GED.

TROEH: Turner says job training for inmates could be a solution to the city's shortage of skilled workers. There was a meeting recently in this city about this very issue, with representatives from many different industries. They were there to find out about federal hurricane relief grants for training new workers. The Louisiana Department of Corrections was at the meeting too. Assistant Secretary Whelan Gibbs says employment helps reduce the prison population.

Mr. WHELAN GIBBS (Assistant Secretary, Louisiana Department of Corrections): We know that if we can link offenders to employment immediately upon release, it goes a long way in rehabilitation and keeping that offender from returning to that revolving door in our correctional system.

TROEH: Gibbs says the sheriff is enthusiastic about the idea. He's already trying to re-establish his rehabilitation and education programs, but they're all jail-based so they don't necessarily shrink the number of people in prison. When Sheriff Gusman won re-election this year, he committed to a smaller prison population. But, he says, watching other institutions, like the city's rebuilding commissions, has convinced him to go slow with change.

Mr. GUSMAN: Having safe jail space is really my primary goal right now. But I'm not abandoning the concepts that I embraced.

TROEH: But continuing to lock people up on minor charges is actually slowing down progress in the city, according to activist Corey Turner.

Mr. TURNER: The majority of these people don't need to be there. And so, these could be people that are out, you know, helping New Orleans rebuild.

TROEH: Instead, they will be crowding into temporary housing, like so many in New Orleans - but his time it's the jail.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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