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Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s decision to move ahead with construction of 400 temporary jail beds before a working group meets to examine the jail expansion has divided the group and drawn criticism from City Council President Arnie Fielkow.
Fielkow and three members of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new 23-member Criminal Justice Working Group urged Gusman on Tuesday to stop building until the working group has met for the first time in early October. However, seven members of the group don’t have a problem with the sheriff moving ahead as he sees fit. The remaining members either offered no opinion or did not return calls for comment.
Gusman said he needs the temporary cells to hold prisoners who will have to be moved to accommodate construction of the new jail that the committee is considering.
In a written statement, Gusman said he plans to keep channels of communication open, but he made it clear that he intends to proceeds with the work.
“I spoke to Council President Arnie Fielkow today and reaffirmed my commitment to keep his office informed about the temporary jail bed construction that is taking place,” he said. “This temporary project has been underway for nearly two years, in consultation with FEMA and all other necessary agencies. We have received all necessary permits and approvals to continue our planned work.
“We will continue to work with the city’s new Criminal Justice Working Group and look forward to future meetings and discussions.”
Fielkow is not a member of the group that was formed to make a recommendation to the mayor and City Council, which still must approve a zoning change before Gusman can begin work on the new jail.
“I would prefer that we hold this for a month or two. This task force is supposed to act pretty quickly,” Fielkow said in an interview with The Lens’ partners at Fox8 News. “I would prefer we hold this right now, and let’s deal with this issue holistically once we have all of this information.”
Three members of the mayor’s new working group shared Fielkow’s sentiments.
“Obviously he has the right to demonstrate his need for these beds, and he should be given the opportunity to do so,” said Lucas Diaz, with Puentes New Orleans. “But I think going forward at this point is a concern — without having had a public discussion, or reached out to the community who are his allies and partners, without having it addressed in any public forum whatsoever is a concern.”
The head of the city’s public defense agency, Derwyn Bunton, said that “it would make the most sense [for the sheriff] to halt now and wait for the commission to issue a recommendation” on the construction.
Another member of the mayor’s working group, who last week provoked the sheriff with remarks about jails being used as an “economic development tool” in Louisiana, likewise called for a pause in construction.
“It can wait until after a discussion has been had, unless he can show that there is some overwhelming compulsive need that it be done today,” said former Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Calvin Johnson. “Otherwise, no, it should wait until this group, which he’s a part of, meets and has an opportunity to talk about this.”
Not everyone is against the construction, however.
The Lens and Fox8 News called the sheriff and the other 22 members of the working group on Tuesday for comment on the 400 new beds. Most did not respond, but of those who did, six of the seven said they were not aware of the sheriff building the 400 new beds until The Lens and Fox8 News broke the story on Monday.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro had no comment, but his office was unaware of the construction until yesterday, a spokesman said. Chief Judge Dennis Dannel of New Orleans Traffic court was unaware of the construction, but said the sheriff is entitled to make decisions about his jail. Council member Susan Guidry, who leads the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said she hadn’t been aware of the construction, but that if the sheriff is “replacing inadequate beds with adequate beds, then I don’t have a problem with it.”
Representatives of city leadership on the working group have not answered whether they knew about the construction before Monday. But Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s spokesman, Ryan Berni, said Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin spoke on behalf of deputy mayors Jerry Sneed and Cedric Grant, as well as City Attorney Nannette Jolivette Brown on Monday, when Kopplin said: “We gotta let the sheriff run his jail.”
New Orleans Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens said he was aware of the construction before Monday, and that he sided with the sheriff.
“There is no rationale for us not to begin,” Sens said.