Orleans Parish Prison in National Context

by Peter Wagner, Benjamin Greenberg and Aleks Kajstura,
exerpted from research commissioned by the Safe Streets Coalition, November 30, 2005

The largest city in Louisiana and the 31st largest city in the country had a troubled criminal justice system long before Hurricane Katrina, but the Hurricane's damage to the city's physical and political infrastructure has created a unique opportunity for progressive criminal justice system reform.

At your request, we have reviewed the literature on detention, policing and courts to identify what a better criminal justice system in New Orleans might look like. This is not intended to be a final or comprehensive document, but rather a first step for your grassroots consultations and strategizing in New Orleans.

We hope you find this report helpful, and we thank you for the opportunity to assist New Orleans rebuild in a more just fashion.

chart showing that orleans parish prison used to be much smaller


Historically speaking, prisons for punishment are a relatively modern invention, but jails to hold people awaiting trial are not. That said, the massive growth of jail systems nationwide is itself recent and more the result of policy changes than changes in crime patterns.

Currently, jails are used for 3 purposes: 1. to hold people who must be confined while awaiting trial, 2. to hold people serving relatively short and minor sentences, and 3. to hold people on a contract basis for other jurisdictions. As will be discussed, these are not necessarily legitimate uses of jails, but it is how they are used and these are the components of any discussion of capacity.

We will first present a population analysis of the Orleans Parish Prison (the local jail in New Orleans) and then put Orleans Parish Prison in a national context as the largest jail system in the country.

Population analysis

Almost half of Louisiana's state prisoners are housed not in state prisons but local jails on a contract basis.[1] In March 2005, Orleans Parish Prison had 1,983 state Department of Corrections prisoners.[2] More than a third of the Orleans Parish Prison population is actually state prisoners, and Orleans Parish holds 3 times as many state prisoners as any other parish.

Many government agencies believe they can make a small profit incarcerating prisoners for other jurisdictions while retaining the flexibility to later fill those cells with local prisoners when needed. This is not only a fiscally risky proposition, it requires the Parish to construct and staff the prison prior to filling it with prisoners. Given the tight fiscal situation in New Orleans, rebuilding the capacity of Orleans Parish Prison to host prisoners from other parts of the state should not be a priority.

Similarly, the Parish should not be in the business of renting prison cells to federal agencies. According to our analysis of a 2001 survey of jails, another 231 prisoners, or 4% of the population, consisted of various types of federal prisoners.[3]

The Orleans Parish Prison population could also be reduced by policy changes that would make it easier to release defendants who are awaiting trial. These reforms will be discussed in more detail in the courts section of this report, but we will confine here ourselves to discussing the numerical importance of this issue. According to the 2001 survey, almost 36% of the Orleans Parish Prison population has not been convicted and are awaiting trial.[4] Based on the research in to detention reform in other states, most if not all of these 2,120 pre-trial women and men could safely be released to their home communities. Assuming conservatively that the per day cost of incarceration to Orleans Parish is the same $35.48 that the state Department of Corrections spends system wide, releasing all pre-trial detainees could save the parish more than $75,000 per day.

It's difficult to say how big Orleans Parish Prison should be, but we can easily see how much smaller it could be without changing a single line of the criminal code. By getting out of the business of renting out cells to the state and federal governments and by ensuring that almost all pre-trial defendants are able to be released on bail, the Orleans Parish Prison population could be 75% smaller, holding less than 1,500 people.

Orleans Parish Prison in the national context

Having shown that the Orleans Parish Population could be much smaller, it might be useful to show that how far Orleans Parish Prison is out of the national norm. Rather than just compare New Orleans to the handful of cities of similar sizes, we analyzed the 49 of the nation's 50 largest jail systems to see how large each was compared to their resident populations.

Holding population constant, New Orleans has the largest jail system in the country, and is almost as twice large as its nearest competitor: Baltimore City, Maryland. Even subtracting the almost 2,000 state prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison, Orleans Parish's jail incarceration rate would still be the highest in the country at 820 prisoners per 100,000 parish residents. See Table 1.

(Large numbers of external prisoners in a local jail can distort the statistics, so we excluded Reeves County, Texas from the 50 largest jail systems we studied. Reeves County is a very small county with slightly more than 10,000 residents but it operates its local jail as a huge privately run prison. The resulting numbers imply that that county locks up 18% of its population which is not the case. Since the actual numbers were not readily available, we excluded this county from the analysis.)

What cities would be best to compare New Orleans to is a political question that you should decide from Appendix A about cities of similar sizes, from the below Table 1 and from your own work in the region. You will know best what cities would be most politically appropriate to compare New Orleans to, and the use of rates rather than raw numbers allows comparisons to cities of different sizes. For the sake of argument and because New Orleans officials have proposed making the police department the same proportional size as the New York Police Department, we thought it would be interesting to set the capacity of Orleans Parish Prison at the same proportional size of New York City's Rikers Island jail. If New Orleans wants to be a scaled down version of New York City, the Orleans Parish Prison should have only 979 cells in it.[5]

But regardless of what city you choose to compare New Orleans with, the Orleans Parish Prison is far too big.

By share of population in jail, New Orleans has the largest jail system in the nation.

Table 1. By share of population in jail, New Orleans has the largest jail system in the nation.[6]
Jurisdiction 2004 Jail population Number in jail per 100,000 residents 2004 Census population estimate
Orleans Parish, LA 5,778 1,250
(820 without the state prisoners)
Baltimore City, MD 4,440 698 636,251
District of Columbia 3,555 642 553,523
Orange County, CA 6,117 618 989,926
Shelby County, TN 4,939 544 908,175
Davidson County, TN 3,097 541 572,475
Philadelphia City, PA 7,404 504 1,470,151
Polk County, FL 2,491 475 524,389
Jacksonville City, FL 3,375 459 735,617
Fulton County, GA 3,524 433 814,438
Hillsborough County, FL 4,464 405 1,101,261
De Kalb County, GA 2,623 388 675,725
Oklahoma County, OK 2,582 379 680,815
Suffolk County, MA 2,479 372 666,022
Cobb County, GA 2,405 368 654,005
Fresno County, CA 3,124 360 866,772
Bernalillo County, NM 2,136 360 593,765
Orange County, FL 3,529 356 989,926
El Paso County, TX 2,539 356 713,126
Milwaukee County, WI 3,015 325 928,018
Pinellas County, FL 2,922 315 928,537
Gwinnett County, GA 2,187 312 700,794
Dallas County, TX 7,090 309 2,294,706
Marion County, IN 2,593 300 863,596
Broward County, FL 5,264 300 1,754,893
Sacramento County, CA 3,958 293 1,352,445
Essex County, NJ 2,284 287 796,684
Hamilton County, OH 2,335 287 814,611
San Bernardino County, CA 5,494 286 1,921,131
Kern County, CA 2,099 286 734,846
Alameda County, CA 4,116 283 1,455,235
Dade County, FL 6,581 278 2,363,600
Travis County, TX 2,341 269 869,868
Maricopa County, AZ 9,148 261 3,501,001
Bexar County, TX 3,856 258 1,493,965
Franklin County, OH 2,681 246 1,088,971
Santa Clara County, CA 4,054 241 1,685,188
Palm Beach County, FL 2,848 229 1,243,230
Allegheny County, PA 2,802 224 1,250,867
Harris County, TX 7,902 217 3,644,285
Tarrant County, TX 3,147 198 1,588,088
Cook County, IL 10,155 191 5,327,777
Los Angeles County, CA 18,600 187 9,937,739
Clark County, NV 3,056 185 1,650,671
San Diego County, CA 5,243 179 2,931,714
Riverside County, CA 3,250 174 1,871,950
New York City, NY 13,818 171 8,104,079
King County, WA 2,407 135 1,777,143
Wayne County, MI 2,497 124 2,016,202


[1] Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections statistics [PDF] as of March 31, 2005, page 7

[2] Department of Public Safety & Corrections - Corrections Services Local Facilities Bedspace and Projections [PDF], as of March 31, 2005, page 153

[3] Analysis of Annual Survey of Jails: Jurisdiction-Level Data, 2001, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, Study #3383. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. ANNUAL SURVEY OF JAILS: JURISDICTION-LEVEL DATA, 2001 [Computer file]. Conducted by U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. ICPSR ed. Ann Arbor, MI: Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research [producer and distributor], 2004.

[4] Ibid.

[5] It is obvious that some cities have lower jail incarceration rates than others. But rather than show that some cities have very low rates, it might be more effective to pick the cities that you think policy makers might be most apt to want to model themselves after. To form the sentence "If New Orleans used jail as a frequently as [city], Orleans Parish Prison would have only [cells]" take the jail incarceration rate for that city, multiply it by the Census 2004 population for New Orleans (462,269) and then divide it by 100,000. On the calculator, that's [jail rate] * 462,269 / 100,000 = .

[6] Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau and calculations by the authors.

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