Building for work release inmates in Livingston Parish set to open soon _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --The mostly-finished Livingston Parish Sheriff Work Release building in Walker, Louisiana.

A new 150-bed site for work-release inmates is preparing to open in Walker.

The Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office owns the land and paid for the construction of the building but is planning to turn over day-to-day operations to a private company, which will scout jobs for inmates and collect a portion of their wages.

The new building is located on Woodside Drive off U.S. 190 on property that also contains the Sheriff’s Office’s firing range, next to the Waste Management landfill. Inmates are expected to begin moving in within the next two weeks, said Sheriff Jason Ard and Paul Perkins, head of Louisiana Workforce LLC, which will manage the site.

When authorities broke ground for the new building in September 2014, they said they hoped to finish by May or June of 2015. However, that timeline did not include a separate project to run utilities out to the new facility. Ard said he’d hoped to finish all construction by October, but rain caused further delays.

“Our biggest problem was Mother Nature,” he said. “The weather was hitting me on the left, and it was hitting me on the right.”

The sheriff began partnering with Louisiana Workforce a few years ago. Currently, a wing of the parish detention center is used to house up to 75 work-release inmates, but they will be moved into the new building. Perkins expects to sign a contract with the Sheriff’s Office in the next week or two but said he anticipates striking a deal similar to the arrangements he has with other Louisiana law enforcement agencies. By law, sheriffs or their partners may collect 62 percent of an inmate’s earnings to cover room, board, transportation and other expenses. Perkins will likely collect that money and pay a fixed rent to Ard for use of the site — perhaps in the area of $10 per bed, per day, he said.

Proponents of work release argue that though inmates must turn over the majority of their earnings, they are taught skills and introduced to employers who may keep them on once their jail time is up.

Livingston inmates work in a variety of industries, but Perkins said he is interested in sending some to receive training in welding, expecting a demand for the skill as nearby industrial sites open and grow.

Though the new work-release facility will add beds for inmates in Livingston Parish, Ard said it will have little effect on the crowding at the local jail.

Seventy-five Livingston inmates were being housed outside the parish as of Jan. 13 — 67 men in Catahoula and eight women in Richland, according to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lori Steele.

Ard explained that the inmates moving to the new work-release building are state, not local, offenders. The sheriff has about 688 beds, of which 180 beds are used to house inmates from the Louisiana Department of Corrections. The state pays Ard about $25 per DOC inmate per day. The sheriff says he needs that money to cover the salaries of his corrections officers.

“I can’t afford to give up my DOC inmates,” he said.

And while Louisiana Workforce will begin paying the Sheriff’s Office rent for the new space, Ard has pointed out that, at least in the short term, that money will need to pay back the cost of building the facility. Though it came in slightly under budget, the building cost approximately $2.7 million.

Meanwhile, the parish government, not the Sheriff’s Office, must cover the cost of holding local inmates elsewhere in the state. Ard has said that when former parish leaders constructed the current jail around 2008, they only built it big enough to house their inmate population at the time, without planning for growth.

Ard could release inmates without bail to alleviate crowding, though he has generally opposed such a tactic in the past, including in an interview during last fall’s campaign season.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.