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An interview with Sheriff Gusman before runoff

10th March 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

All three of the races in Orleans Parish on Saturday are closely fought contests, but few are as contentious as the fight between former Sheriff and Attorney General Charles Foti and current Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

To get to the truth of the contest, we reached out to both campaigns. Mr. Foti’s was not able to reply when this newspaper went to press, but Mr. Gusman himself took on some of the charges that have been leveled against his plans for Orleans Parish Prison and the future of the Sheriff’s office.

The proposal to reuse one of the old prison buildings for the mentally incapable seems to back up your opponent, Charles Foti’s case, that even the bigger jail is not big enough. Was he right?

Marlin Gusman: Foti is wrong again. I’m building a safer, more secure 1,438-bed facility that will follow the direct supervision model, a model utilized by the most efficient and forward-thinking correctional institutions in the country. We will have such a facility is this community.

The ordinance under which the new inmate housing is being built, has a provision that specifically states that acute mental and mental health services must be provided in a facility separate from the new inmate housing building. My office is complying with the ordinance.

When I became Sheriff in 2004, I inherited from my predecessor 11 different jail facilities with a combined bed count of 7,523 beds. Many of these beds were in facilities that were outmoded, or not designed for use as a jail. The physical footprint of the jail I inherited was spread throughout several square miles of the Mid-City neighborhood.

As Sheriff, I have implemented a master plan that calls for reducing the number of inmates and jail facilities as well as consolidating our operations onto a smaller footprint. That plan is bearing fruit.

Under my watch, we have closed the House of Detention, the South White Street facility, the Rendon facility the Fisk School facility, Templeman 1, Templeman 2, and the Community Correctional Center. We have started dismantling the facilities commonly known as “the Tents,” Removing the tents gets us that much closer to opening our new inmate housing building, which replaces the now closed Templeman 3 and Templeman 4 facilities.

And when the new jail opens, we will close even more facilities. We will close the Old Parish Prison and we will close the Conchetta facility which was originally a motel.

Converting a motel to a jail facility and converting a school to a jail facility shows you the lengths my opponent went to build and maintain the largest jail possible.

Your opponent argues that state prisoners, and the money they bring in, constitute an essential financial funding source for the jail. His argument to go bigger, to 7000 prisoners or so, would actually cost less, since the city would be paid $22-$25 per prisoner, per day. Does he have a point, and how does his philosophical position on this point engage with yours?

Marlin Gusman: I repeat, when I took over from Mr. Foti, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office was up to 7,532 beds. Your question restates Mr. Foti’s intention to have a bigger jail once again. He wants to re-establish his prison-industrial complex, just like in the old days.

Foti’s concept of raising money on the backs of prisoners is outdated. Moreover, to reduce the argument to a financial one in which incarcerated individuals are viewed as a supply-and-demand problem with a profit motive is offensive.

This community asked for and is getting a smaller, safer, more secure jail under my watch.

Mardi Gras used to see a lot of prisoners on the streets cleaning up. What is the status of the Sheriff’s outreach programs using prison labor on the streets?

Marlin Gusman: Every year, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office plays an active role in providing public safety and service during the city’s premier celebration. Our deputies are assigned to parade duty alongside New Orleans police officers. We also cooperate with the New Orleans Police Department by providing the mobile booking bus every Mardi Gras season. This mobile intake and processing center allows police to spend more time on patrol in the French Quarter.

Our reserve deputies volunteer to staff Operation Lost Kids with a goal of reuniting lost children with their parents at Mardi Gras parades.

In years past, we have had municipal inmates in our Community Service Program cleaning up after Mardi Gras parades. This year, we had fewer municipal inmates and fewer of those inmates could meet the criteria for participating. We advised the city of this early on and the city made other arrangements to get the streets cleaned after Mardi Gras parades. Community service inmates still help out at the Coroner’s Office and at the city stable.

The March 15th election is about turnout. Sheriff, you came close to a primary victory, yet part of the reason dealt with high African-American turnout. If Black turnout falls in the wake of Mardi Gras, can you win?

Marlin Gusman: Yes. Here’s why: In the primary, I received 49 percent of the overall vote. I received a majority of the Black vote and 30 percent of the white vote. My candidacy has the broadest appeal and I have been endorsed by The Times-Picayune The Louisiana Weekly, The New Orleans Tribune, other Sheriff’s in the area, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and every major organization: the Alliance for Good Government, the In­ter­denominational Ministerial Alliance, the Independent Wo­men’s Organization, the Fraternal Order of Police and many, many more.

We came close, but we have more work to do. My campaign is working hard to make sure voters are aware that, as Sheriff, I will continue to move the office forward.

I have already consolidated the footprint of jail facilities. I am operating a smaller, more secure jail. I will continue to provide programs for inmates and their families.

Also, collectively Ira Thomas and Charles Foti nearly tied the results you earned in that primary, and Thomas is supporting Foti actively. Do you think those voters will back you, instead of the former Sheriff?

Marlin Gusman: Voters are smart and they see Thomas’ endorsement as the craven political act that it is. I was the largest individual vote-getter in the primary and I’m confident that I can retain an overwhelming number of Black voters as well as attract a significant number of votes that went to the losing candidates in the primary.

Again, I have won every endorsement available from ministers, to general market and African American newspapers, to women’s groups to law enforcement professionals. My opponent is not endorsed by anyone. That‘s an indication of who the public thinks ought to be leading the jail.

Let’s be clear: Most voters and observers recognize that my campaign is the best means of achieving a safer, more secure future and leaving behind the prison-industrial complex built by my opponent, who is advocating for the same old thing. We simply can’t afford to go back to the past.

This article originally published in the March 10, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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