East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said Wednesday the state has agreed to give up a portion of the land where the now-closed Jetson Center for Youth used to sit so the sheriff can build a new parish prison.
In a conversation following the dedication of the new Gardere Substation, Gautreaux said one of his last major goals, if not the most pressing one, is to build a new prison to replace the aging, dilapidated facility near Metro Airport.
The state has about 800 acres outside of Baker where it operated the Jetson Center for Youth as a secure center for juvenile offenders.
Gautreaux said he and Lt. Col. Dennis Grimes, warden of the Parish Prison, have been in talks with an architect to begin drawing up plans for a new Parish Prison.
Gautreaux said he hopes to have a plan in place and the property procured this year.
“The state’s already told us they would give us the property out at Jetson,” Gautreaux said.
However, Greg Dupuis, a spokesman with the state Division of Administration, which handles state land transfers and sales, said they have no formal commitment in place with the Sheriff’s Office.
“The administration is always happy to work with the sheriff,” Dupuis added.
Attempts to contact Gautreaux on Wednesday night to clarify his comments were unsuccessful.
But one thing that is not debatable is the need for a new Parish Prison and a proper mental health wing to house the growing number of mentally ill people arrested each day.
Major plumbing and ventilation issues plague the prison, which was built in 1965 and gained additional wings and a central booking area in 1987.
Warden Grimes said the metal water pipes rust, causing them to fall apart and become easy targets for inmates looking for weapons in the cracked walls. He also said ventilation problems inside the facility are hard to fix.
“When you’re looking at something that’s built in the ’60s, I mean it’s just not adequate for what you need,” Grimes said. “Even the one that’s built in the early ’80s is not adequate, does not meet the needs as far as security, as far as the inmates and as far as our staff.”
Grimes said they house about 1,500 prisoners, which is the prison’s maximum operating capacity.
More than 600 prisoners are housed at other facilities outside the parish at a cost of about $6 million annually, Gautreaux said.
The proposed prison would be able to hold about 2,500 prisoners with the possibility to expand to about 3,000 if needed, Grimes said.
The proposed prison would be more technology friendly than the existing prison, which lacks adequate security cameras because the ceilings are too low. Prisoners can jump up and knock down the cameras, creating blind spots.
“They’re fixing stuff, but the place is old,” Grimes said. “You fix one thing, you strengthen one thing, it’s just going to weaken something else.”
Gautreaux and Grimes both pointed to the inmate intake and release areas, which are next to each other and cause bottlenecks at the lone door to the area.
A mental health wing to house the growing mentally ill population at the prison also is something on the to-do list for a new facility, Grimes said. Once planning is further along, Grimes said, they will bring East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services’ Prison Medical Services officials into the fold to determine what they need in order to provide better services for mentally ill inmates.
Linda Ottesen, the prison health care manager for EMS, said her “genie wish-list” for a new prison would be two wings — one for men and one for women — complete with isolation cells with Plexiglas, interview rooms where court-licensed psychologists could talk to the inmates without taking the inmates out of their comfort zone and a padded suicide precaution room visible from all sides with no blind spots and built to the newest design specifications for mental health care.
She said she has some of those items at the current facility, but they are built from older designs.
One of those new design specifications she would like are recessed toilets and sinks so inmates cannot climb up and jump off to harm themselves.
But getting the finances for a new prison will not be an easy task.
In the past several years, voters twice rejected tax proposals to fund parishwide infrastructure improvements, among them a larger prison; in August 2011, the Metro Council refused to send to voters Holden’s tax-and-bond proposal, which would have earmarked $151 million for a new prison.
A new Parish Prison was also one of the items on the $300 million pie-in-the-sky list of public safety improvements officials drew up in 2011. In that list, the public safety committee asked the Metro Council for $165 million for a new Parish Prison. That request went nowhere, as did the majority of the items on that list.
Gautreaux said he feels city-parish officials are planning to take another run at a prison because they put him and Grimes in touch with the architect.
But William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said that to his knowledge there have been no recent talks between Holden and Gautreaux about building a new prison.
Daniel said Gautreaux has presented the mayor with several companies interested in building and operating the prison, but those companies wanted the city-parish to make annual payments to them. The last presentation was about a year ago.
“The mayor thinks a new prison is necessary but we have to figure out how to finance it,” Daniel said.
He said he thinks the sheriff can put a bond proposition on the ballot seeking money for a new prison without going through the Metro Council or the city-parish government. Such bonds typically are repaid with tax revenue, such as property taxes.
“I’m pretty sure he can do that without us,” Daniel said.
Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter @ryanmbroussard
Editor’s note: This story was modified on May 2, 2014, to correct a misquote of East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux. The original story said he hopes to begin construction within a year. What Gautreaux said was that he hopes to have a plan in place and the property procured this year. The Advocate regrets the error.