By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Despite an apparent agreement last week to drastically reduce the size of the city’s jail complex, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman on Monday bristled at any decision now that he be required to demolish jail cells in the future.

Such discussions should happen after he finishes his new 1,438-bed jail, he told Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group.

Though somewhat disconcerted, the group, of which Gusman is a member, softened language in a recommendation it will issue to Landrieu and the City Council. The City Council has withheld approval of a permit needed for Gusman to start his new facility, pending the recommendation of the working group.

The group said last week that the need to demolish Gusman’s inhumane and aging facilities was key in its decision to recommend that the sheriff move forward with the new jail.  On Friday, the group essentially proposed a swap: When Gusman opens his new building, he would have to close or demolish buildings that could hold an equivalent number of inmates.

The group’s resolution now merely aims to demolish those facilities at some point, but leaves the final decision up to the City Council, Mayor Landrieu, and possibly to Gusman himself.

The working group met this afternoon to hear public comment on the draft resolution.  Gusman left the meeting just five minutes into the public testimony. Gusman had been there for the hourlong discussion about demolition that preceded public comment.

Gusman had a prior engagement, said Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, chairman of the group.

Gusman began the meeting by saying he had never agreed to demolish most of his jail facilities in exchange for approval of a new 1,438 bed facility on Friday.

Kopplin seemed concerned by Gusman’s position.

“I think the question is: What is the consensus that we thought we had Friday that seems to be slipping away,” Kopplin said. “The problem with writing a complicated resolution orally is that everybody’s able to interpret it as they see fit and then vote for it.”

The language in the draft resolution was:

“Upon opening the new facility, the following Orleans Parish Prison facilities shall be decommissioned or demolished concurrently – House of Detention, Community Correctional Center, Conchetta, South White Street, Templeman V, and the original Temporary Housing Units (Tents). Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) shall only be used as a holding facility to transfer inmates to and from court.”

Gusman said the wording was too strong.

“My problem is, we have plenty of time to talk about it, and I’m not saying these aren’t discussion items, I just think that in this motion, it’s a little bit far-reaching,” Gusman said. “It doesn’t have the flexibility that we need to have as a community.”

Gusman (left) challenges Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin over the language in the draft resolution this afternoon. Photo by Matt Davis

Councilwoman Susan Guidry told Gusman that the 400 beds he’s building in an $11 million temporary facility would provide an ample buffer while the number of jail beds comes down.

Some members of the group said they liked the 1,438-bed swap.

“I think putting a target on this is what drives decision-making,” said Flozell Daniels, president of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.

Others said they felt decreeing the demolition was too hasty. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said he’d feel more comfortable saying, instead: “Let’s demolish 1,438 beds.”

“I do not think we should agree to demolish every other facility once this facility is built,” Cannizzaro said. Kopplin disagreed, saying he wants to require the demolition now, and then back off later if necessary.

The group voted to amend the resolution, adding language into the original phrase about demolition and decommissioning: “unless other appropriate action is taken by the mayor or city council consistent with their authority.”

“The discussion is not over,” Kopplin said. “I think the language did imply a finality that wasn’t consistent with the discussion.”

If the council chooses to give Gusman the necessary permit, they can attach specific conditions. It’s unclear what leverage, if any, the council or the mayor might have over Gusman’s decisions after permission is granted.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas asked what might happen if it emerges that Landrieu or the City Council doesn’t have the authority to call for the demolition of those facilities.

“Just throwing that out there,” Serpas said.

Nobody answered his question, and the resolution was amended.

Public comment focused on a variety of issues, especially public trust.

“I just want to reiterate the need for council to set a strong number to aim for,” Titus Lin said. “You take away that number, and you leave too much space to add more beds, and to do that would be a betrayal of the public trust.”

Lin wasn’t the only member of the public who voiced mistrust.

“There’s been a history in this city of having provisos that aren’t real,” Pam Nath said.

A neighbor of the new facility had his own concerns.

“We’d like to see the count through all the phases, and be sure that this 1,400-bed jail is the most that there’s going to be,” said Adrian Manriquez with the Mid-City neighborhood association.

Jon Wool with the Vera Institute of Justice said he was pleased that the working group will continue to meet to discuss issues like the racial disparity in inmate stays.

Norris Henderson with Voice of The Ex-Offender said the committee needed to be careful to avoid “bed-swapping,” and focus on decommissioning beds instead, as it continues its work over the coming weeks.