At any given time, between 400 and 700 East Baton Rouge Parish inmates are housed in jails across the state — some as far-flung as East Carroll Parish in Louisiana’s remote northeast corner.
It’s a less than ideal situation for law enforcement and criminal defense attorneys but necessary, as East Baton Rouge Parish Prison just doesn’t have the space for all of the inmates being booked.
Officials say the need for space and the ballooning costs associated with sending pretrial inmates to out-of-parish detention centers is a key reason they are pushing for a new jailhouse in Mayor-President Kip Holden’s latest $350 million public safety infrastructure tax plan. With 2,500 beds, the proposed facility would have space for 900 more inmates, giving it the largest capacity of any parish jail in Louisiana.
But it’s unclear whether a new prison would save the city-parish money, as data suggests that it’s cheaper to house inmates in other jails. Proponents of a new prison, however, argue there’s a long list of other reasons to replace the 50-year-old complex, which is plagued with maintenance problems, safety concerns and inadequate facilities.
“Sending all of our prisoners out of the parish is not a good use of taxpayer money,” William Daniel, Holden’s chief administrative officer, said earlier this month after it was revealed the mayor would be seeking tax increases.
The price tag for sending inmates to other jails across the state averages about $6 million a year for the past three years — a number that has doubled since as recently as 2010.
Still, despite the growing costs, the city-parish saves about $10 per day for every inmate it sends away. Officials touting the expenses of the out-of-parish housing costs fail to note that if the inmates were brought back, the city-parish still would have to pay for inmates and likely at a higher rate.
The various jails that East Baton Rouge Parish contracts with to send overflow prisoners charge between $24.39 and $24.70 per inmate per day. The cost of transporting inmates to and from the other parishes adds another $1.29 per inmate each day, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
In comparison, it costs about $36.87 per day for every inmate housed at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.
The daily inmate cost takes into account the salaries and benefits of prison staff, food, supplies, uniforms, toiletries and guard service.
East Baton Rouge Parish Prison has a capacity of 1,594. But there are about 2,200 inmates under the parish’s control at any given time. The number of inmates is constantly changing, but this week there were 643 out-of-parish inmates spread across Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Evangeline and Pointe Coupee parish jails.
Ultimately, a new, larger jail would lower the total per-prisoner cost, because the overhead costs would be spread over more inmates, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office.
However, a new, larger prison will still require hiring about 70 new deputies, said Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who is responsible for overseeing the staffing for the parish prison.
Gautreaux said he believes keeping the prisoners in the parish will work out to be cheaper than sending them away but noted that he hadn’t had an opportunity to scrutinize the data.
Distance complicates system
Cost isn’t the only motivation to keep inmates inside the parish, proponents of a new jail say.
Defense attorneys say it can be frustrating and impractical when a client is being kept hundreds of miles away.
“It’s difficult for us to communicate with our clients if they aren’t as close,” said public defender Mike Mitchell, while adding that the Sheriff’s Office is generally cooperative about bringing defendants in for necessary interviews with counsel.
But he said sometimes attorneys will drive to another parish for a meeting, only to discover their client was moved someplace else.
“It happens often,” Mitchell said.
Local defense attorney Ben LaBranche, president of the Baton Rouge Bar of Criminal Justice, said the long-distance relationships between attorneys and defendants can slow down the legal system. Obstacles in communicating with clients often result in lawyers requesting continuances in court, he said.
Phone calls simply aren’t an option for defense attorneys, LaBranche noted, as jails record telephone conversations, while talks between defendants and lawyers must be kept private.
Reduce inmate population?
Jon Wool, who directs the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice, said a better public policy for Baton Rouge would be to analyze ways to reduce the inmate population before planning to invest millions of dollars of taxpayer money to solve a capacity problem.
“Adding more beds almost never solves an overcrowding problem,” Wool said. “I would caution against the reflexive idea that we need to grow the jail to the size of the population.”
Wool said at 2,200 detainees, East Baton Rouge Parish is incarcerating double the national average for an urban county, based on federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
“What we should first be asking is, are there reasons we have to detain more people than Albuquerque or Omaha or other like-sized jurisdictions,” Wool said. “If not, what are we doing to ensure that we don’t over-detain?”
For its part, the city-parish is attempting to reduce inmate population in other ways, including the addition of a mental health facility that will serve as an option for mentally ill offenders booked on nonviolent crimes.
Gautreaux also has attempted to decrease recidivism by offering 24 self-help programs within the prison.
But he noted that as the most populous parish in the state, East Baton Rouge officials are expecting increased jail demands.
A prison-needs assessment report, conducted by Grace and Hebert Architects, forecasted that “without any policy changes or programs to reduce the incarceration rate,” the parish would need 2,735 beds by 2022 and 3,237 by 2032. “We’re not in the business of seeing how many people we can arrest, but the fact of the matter is that we have people that have to go to prison and should go to prison,” Gautreaux said.
He acknowledged that, at the current rate of bookings, even the larger prison would fill to capacity quickly, adding that he had hoped to build out to closer to 3,000 beds.
By comparison, the jail in Jefferson Parish, which has a population just shy of East Baton Rouge, houses 1,208 inmates at full capacity. In Orleans Parish, meanwhile, authorities are preparing to open a new 1,438-bed jail next year but also will plan to keep open indefinitely a 400-bed temporary detention center as officials seek to reduce the city’s inmate population.
In the Baton Rouge area, Livingston Parish opened a new jail in 2009, expanding capacity from 154 to 673 beds. Livingston Parish officials similarly pushed for the jail because it was undersized and they were sending inmates to other parishes in droves.
The number of inmates quickly reached capacity after two years, and between 30 and 60 inmates were sent to other parishes, down from about 250 in previous years.
But by 2014, the inmate population dropped. This week, there were fewer than 500 inmates in the prison. The number fluctuates daily, but there is rarely a need to send inmates out of the parish now, said Lori Steele, public information officer for the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The inmate reduction is attributed to a number of programs, the most successful being a pretrial release program that offers certain offenders alternatives to traditional incarceration by participating in counseling and educational programs, and working with community groups.
City-parish officials have said that in addition to being undersized, the jail is old, outdated and expensive to run. It can’t support modern surveillance equipment, and it often requires expensive maintenance and infrastructure repairs.
Holden and Daniel both have said they are concerned the federal government could intervene by imposing a consent decree or by closing down portions of the prison for being unsafe.
The prison is the most expensive component of Holden’s tax plan — a proposal officials are expected to release in more detail soon — estimated to cost about $200 million.
The overall plan also will include a new juvenile services facility, a mental health services facility and new offices for the district attorney and public defenders.
The Metro Council is expected to vote on whether the proposal will be placed on the ballot in January. If approved, voters will make the final determination on the tax plan on May 2.
Staff writer Daniel Bethencourt contributed to this report. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.