Angela Stokes lost nearly everything she gathered in her 26 years in prison when it flooded in August 2016, including photos of her now grown children and legal paperwork that could be key in an upcoming pardon board hearing.
One year later, Stokes and more than 1,000 other inmates from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women are still trying to replace what was lost and create a new normal in temporary facilities, while officials mull over their options for restoring or rebuilding the flooded St. Gabriel complex.
As the waters rose on Aug. 16, the women had limited time to pack what they could in two laundry bags, wade through water to buses and set off to unknown locations across the state. They didn’t know how long they would be gone, so many packed what they would need for a few days, thinking their treasured items would be safe within the what they had thought were the flood-proof walls of the prison.
But the prison did flood, getting nearly 3 feet of water in some buildings. Now the inmates are undergoing a delayed version of what others on the outside went through after the storm: filing paperwork for reimbursement of lost valuables.
More than half of the women have filed claims with the state Office of Risk Management, the state's self insurance program. Those claims will ultimately be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement, according to Ken Pastorick, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections communications director.
The total dollar amount of those claims and the timeline on reimbursement is still hazy as the numbers climb and administrators work their way through a time intensive process that’s never been done before, according to Pastorick. This was the first time a state prison was fully evacuated.
“(Between) the legality of the claim in itself in conjunction with the property that was actually found and able to be returned … the process is tedious at best,” LCIW Warden Frederick Bouttè said.
Demetria Morgan, an LCIW inmate of 13 years, filed a claim for about $1,500, about twice the average, which is about $600. She said she submitted everything she could remember having, including clothing, shoes and food.
For the paperwork, the women wrote enumerated lists of their possessions, where they left it and how much it cost. The value of some items, however, are left blank — a husband’s death certificate, a mother’s obituary, GED diplomas, scrapbooks.
“I had 26 years of pictures of my children ... that if not for memory, I will never have them again. They’re irreplaceable,” said Stokes, who's serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
Some of those items were returned after prison administration hired a company called ServiceMaster to salvage what they could from the mildewing cells. Morgan, who is serving sentences for manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, received a box last month with many of her photos that were saved, but her legal paperwork was destroyed.
"It’s not the clothes. It’s not the makeup and tennis shoes," Bouttè said. "These are adults. They know that stuff would never stand the test of time in an environment like that. It’s just the subtleties of what makes them human. So when they open that box up, it’s like, OK, all is not lost."
Bouttè said when irreplaceable items like Morgan's photos are returned, it boosts morale in the prison that is especially key during this transitional time. Inmates are being housed in multiple, temporary correctional facilities across the state, including Jetson, a former youth prison in Baker; a separate section of Elayn Hunt, a men’s prison in St. Gabriel; a few in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola; and some local facilities.
While most claims are around several hundred dollars, a few women estimated they lost as much as several thousand dollars and one woman claimed $61,696
Those pricey claims like one inmate who said she had designer Jimmy Choo shoes in her cell have raised eyebrows among administrators, who now say they are looking through all paperwork with "common sense and deductive reasoning" to weed out fraudulent claims, Bouttè said.
“Anybody, whether they’re incarcerated or not, and lose something and there’s insurance involved, you get to say whatever you want to say in regards to what was lost,” Bouttè said. “Now just like any other agency or company, we’re going to look at the situation.”
The bulk of the largest claim consists of what the inmate described as $40,000 in crafting materials, including precious beads, fur yarn and completed projects, according to documents obtained by The Advocate. Another woman said she had $2,000 in books, including some rare and signed copies, a letter signed by author Dean Koontz and $875 in jewelry.
As the women re-purchase what they can for their temporary houses, prison administrators are making decisions and working out the kinks in how to get them home again.
Crews began assessing the damage at the LCIW complex soon after the flood with initial damage estimates hovering near $4.07 million and a January 2018 completion date deemed ambitious. As time has moved on, however, instead of diving into repairs, the administration has paused and taken a step back to look at options.
Bouttè said all possibilities are on the table for the future of the complex, adding there are a lot of factors to consider in the decision to repair, rebuild or relocate.
“You’re talking about restoring or rebuilding, and you’re talking about taxpayer dollars and what would be cost effective, what would be efficient, locations,” Bouttè said. “It’s a huge task that has to be sorted out and done correctly because you don’t have the luxury of building a bad correctional facility.”