By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is making good progress on temporary jail space, which is designed to  ease pressure on his existing facilities before a new permanent jail is constructed.

Still, it remains unclear whether the sheriff will close down 400 existing beds or simply add to the capacity of the his sprawling seven-block jail complex. When pressed on this point, Gusman only has reiterated that the buildings are “temporary.”

They appear to be far more sturdy than the temporary tents the sheriff has used elsewhere.

Metal structures are now rising from concrete foundations along the edge of Interstate 10. This comes after a lengthy delay while construction crews cleared some old concrete foundations that were unearthed by bulldozers during routine site preparations.

Gusman began building the facility with $11 million in money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last fall, before a committee convened by Mayor Mitch Landrieu met to decide on the overall size of a new jail facility.

Gusman didn’t need conditional-use zoning permits, which would have required City Council approval, for the work because the four main buildings of the new compound will not be permanent, city officials have said.

Initially, Gusman said the 400 beds would not add to the overall jail capacity and that other buildings would be closed down as the new beds came online. But he reversed his position after documents came to light showing he planned to use the extra revenue from additional beds to pay off revenue-anticipation loans approved  by the State Bond Commission.

Reforms to the criminal justice system have since led to a reduction in the number of inmates spending time at Gusman’s jail. But he still could increase the number of state and federal inmates being housed at the jail, if he chooses.

The City Council approved construction of a permanent 1,438-bed jail facility in February, and Gusman is expected to select a bidder on the contract in June.

The council ordered Gusman to demolish the temporary facility within 18 months of the 1,438-bed facility opening. Gusman will also have to demolish all of his other outdated facilities as soon as possible unless the city council takes other action “consistent with their authority,” the ordinance said.

Nothing in the council’s action prevents Gusman from building more jail space if he meets necessary city requirements.

Meanwhile, Landrieu’s criminal justice working group has not scheduled another meeting; its  last meeting was April 13. Landrieu originally tasked the group with making a decision on the final jail size by Nov. 22 but it has not completed that task, getting drawn into a discussion about the number of state prisoners, setting bond schedules and racial discrimination instead.

The topic of final jail size did not even come up at the group’s April meeting.

The temporary jail is rising in the shadow of a new kitchen and warehouse facility for the new complex which has gone 50 percent over its original projection from FEMA. That kitchen is at least four times bigger than necessary to accommodate the current number of projected prisoners.

Gusman is on the hook for $17 million in extras after FEMA refused to pay for the additions, though that figure is subject to change, Gusman said. He is expected to make up any shortfall out of the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, a little-scrutinized fund, which he controls.