The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to determine what resources it has allocated to the proposed expansion of the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP).
Despite his plans to dramatically expand the capacity of OPP to 5,800 prisoners, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has provided no documents showing the funding that he says is committed to the project. Although Sheriff Gusman asserts that the project will be underwritten by FEMA, he has never disclosed the extent of FEMA funds or the conditions imposed upon those funds.
"There is a massive expansion planned for OPP yet the public has no idea where the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to expand the prison is coming from," said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "We need a better understanding of the source of the funds, how much the City of New Orleans will have to pay, and whether there are better ways to put this kind of money to use. To do that we need more information."
Among other things, the ACLU's FOIA request seeks the disclosure of any plans or proposals concerning the demolition, rebuilding, repair or expansion of OPP and any documents related to funds FEMA has allocated or disbursed for such projects as well as how the use of those funds might be restricted.
The proposed new size of OPP would be large enough to incarcerate one out of every 60 residents of New Orleans. Yet outside experts have shown that the jail's size could easily be reduced if New Orleans were to adopt commonsense criminal justice policies like expanding pre-trial release options, providing community service sentencing, and setting more appropriate and cost-effective sanctions for minor municipal offenses.
New Orleans residents have expressed mounting concerns during the past year about whether this massive expansion of OPP is warranted. These concerns prompted the New Orleans City Council to postpone in July final approval of Gusman's expansion plans until a special working group convened by Mayor Mitch Landrieu determines the optimal size for OPP. The working group is expected to release its findings in late November.
"Independent scrutiny of Sheriff Gusman's plans is vital to this policy debate," Esman said. "There is a lot of essential information about the planned expansion of OPP that we don't have. An important component is where the money will come from and whether there are strings attached to it. At a time when the City of New Orleans is struggling for resources, the public deserves to know how much this will cost. Now may be the final window of opportunity to access that information."
A copy of the ACLU's FOIA request is available here.