In low-lying Plaquemines Parish, where communities face a perennial threat of floodwaters, a sprawling new jail is getting ready to open its doors, which are 19 feet off the ground for fear of future storm surges.
Perched atop a platform with an enviable view of the Mississippi River, the detention center is supported by concrete pylons intended to withstand whatever Mother Nature might bring.
The elevated design, dictated by federal rules for flood zones, offers an ominous reminder of Hurricane Katrina, which inundated the previous jail, at the same site in Pointe à la Hache, with more than 25 feet of water. As if to underscore its own vulnerability, the new structure is surrounded by concertina razor wire fencing rated to sustain 150 mph winds.
“This jail is designed to survive a hurricane,” said Cmdr. Terry Rutherford, of the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office. “It can operate three to five days on its own power.”
There is little dispute that the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, which, according to the Sheriff’s Office, has cost about $118 million, is a state-of-the-art facility. Its technological features include biometric locks that allow deputies to scan their fingerprints with a keycard to open certain doors.
But for all of the anticipation surrounding the grand opening, much of the 210,000-square-foot jail will remain shuttered indefinitely, as vacant as a boarded-up business bracing for a tropical storm. Sheriff Lonnie Greco, whose full-court press to recruit state and federal inmates for the facility has fallen flat, intends to use only about 100 of the jail’s 871 beds when it opens in November — enough to accommodate the parish’s entire inmate population and about two dozen state Department of Corrections trusties.
The jail is big enough to house nearly 4 percent of the parish’s 23,550 residents.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like the idea that it was built so big,” Greco said last week. “Jails, at one time, were the thing to do. It’s not the thing to do anymore.”
Two of the jail’s three housing wings will be mothballed on day one — sealed off and climate-controlled to prevent mold, with no guarantee that their cells and recreational yards will ever see any inmates.
“We’re going to run it,” Greco said, “and we’re going to do it as frugally as we can.”
A white elephant?
Nine years after Katrina, any sense of achievement reaped from the new jail’s completion has been dampened by the growing belief here that the oversized, overbuilt facility — with its geothermal water system and wood-floor basketball court — is something of a white elephant. Several parish officials said they are increasingly concerned with operating costs, even if only a fraction of the jail is in use.
“(Greco) won’t be able to fill it with local people unless he puts everybody in the parish in jail,” quipped Councilman Percy “P.V.” Griffin, who represents the east bank of the parish and expressed ambivalence about the jail. “We’re going to have to tighten our belt buckles and find ways to help the sheriff operate it.”
The excess jail space in Plaquemines Parish represents a striking contrast to the situation in New Orleans, where Sheriff Marlin Gusman has raised concerns about having too few beds after his new jail opens in January. He is demanding the city build a multimillion-dollar addition to the complex.
The opening of the detention center in Pointe à la Hache will free up between 60 and 70 beds at Orleans Parish Prison, delighting some City Council members who have complained about the jail accommodating them at a time when OPP remains dangerously understaffed.
Greco said he’s had “preliminary discussions” with Gusman about taking in overflow inmates from the city, but he is less enthused by that prospect than he is by the possibility of landing a long-term deal to house state or federal inmates. “The thing is, you’ve got to be very careful about what you accept,” he said. “You’d have to show me numbers, because I’m not going to go in the (financial) hole for anybody.”
In the meantime, Plaquemines Parish officials are anxiously waiting to see whether their new jail will be sustainable without an influx of out-of-parish inmates.
Portraying the lockup as more of a liability to the parish than an economic asset to its desolate east bank, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said he had “begged” former Sheriff Jiff Hingle to push for a smaller jail when replacing the one destroyed by Katrina.
“You don’t build something 10 times bigger than you need in hopes that they will come,” Nungesser said. “Nobody’s going to want to house their prisoners over there with that kind of flood exposure. Imagine what it costs to evacuate that prison — not only for Plaquemines but for any other parish or federal agency that would house prisoners there.”
Indeed, lower Plaquemines Parish is generally the first area that must evacuate when a storm threatens in the Gulf of Mexico, under a regional plan that calls for evacuation in phases.
Hingle, a five-term sheriff and former president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, seemed intent on building the largest facility possible and being made whole by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which paid for the new jails in Plaquemines and New Orleans. Today, Hingle isn’t around to deal with the empty beds, having been sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison last year for taking bribes from Aaron Bennett, the crooked businessman whose firm had received a contract to manage construction of the new jail.
“Greco’s the new guy on the block,” Councilman Byron Marinovich said. “This jail is a baby he inherited.”
Among the most controversial aspects of the jail is its location, which, at Hingle’s insistence, remained unchanged from the site ravaged by Katrina. Throughout years of back-and-forth with FEMA, the former sheriff fought to keep the facility on the parish’s sparsely populated east bank, resisting calls to construct it farther inland. The lockup is more than 30 miles south of Belle Chasse, and the shortest route from that part of the parish — where most residents live — involves a ferry ride across the Mississippi.
Julie Bradford, a FEMA spokeswoman in Baton Rouge, confirmed the placement of the jail ultimately was a Sheriff’s Office decision. And while Nungesser said the jail sits precariously outside the region’s so-called 100-year flood protection system, Bradford noted that it does fall within a federal levee system.
Safer for the public?
For his part, Greco said he doesn’t object to the venue, particularly in light of a new courthouse that seems increasingly likely to be built in Pointe à la Hache, the parish seat. The semirural location is also a boon to public safety in the unlikely event of an escape, he said, likening the jail’s remoteness to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
“To me, it makes a lot of sense,” Greco said.
While larger in square footage, the new jail’s inmate capacity is about the same as its predecessor’s. During his tenure, Hingle expanded the jail far beyond the needs of Plaquemines Parish, with an eye toward housing hundreds of state prisoners and federal detainees awaiting deportation. He sold the jail’s growth — the major expansion was completed in late 2003 — as an answer to his office’s financial problems.
But even before the storm, Hingle’s ambitions of cashing in on incarceration — akin, on a smaller scale, to the correctional empire established by former longtime Orleans Parish Sheriff Charles Foti — never materialized. Hundreds of beds remained empty, as Hingle failed to fill the jail to capacity. When Katrina struck, the jail housed just 457 inmates, 127 of whom belonged to the parish.
“On his better days — his best year — he was almost a million dollars in the hole,” Greco said of his predecessor. “He had everybody else believing he was making money on this, and he wasn’t.”
A changing landscape
The correctional landscape has shifted since Katrina, and Greco has met with reluctance from many of the state and federal officials he’s courted in search of inmates. Would-be business from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is no longer on the table, as the agency has shifted its deportation activities to central Louisiana, while paying to house some detainees in St. Tammany Parish — higher ground than flood-prone Plaquemines Parish and far less apt to need to be evacuated.
Both the federal government and the state Department of Corrections offer lucrative daily rates to local sheriff’s offices in Louisiana for taking on additional inmates, but Greco said there’s been limited interest so far in his new detention center. For one thing, he said, there are only so many state prisoners, and corrections officials “are not going to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
“You’ve got a bunch of sheriffs who have built these big facilities looking for that to make ends meet,” Greco said. “Jails don’t make ends meet. Jails just break even — if you’re lucky.”
The sheriff said he’s taken Jimmy LeBlanc, the state corrections secretary, and U.S. Marshal Genny May for tours of the new jail. “They’ve all seen the facility, and they know what kind of facility we have,” he said.
But Pam Laborde, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said DOC has no plans to send additional state prisoners to Plaquemines Parish.
Garrett Hawk, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, said, “We’re always looking for possible jail space for our federal inmates, and we’ve spoken with Plaquemines Parish about the possibility of housing there.”
With no firm commitments from outside agencies, Greco’s administration has even begun exploring the possibility of bringing in prisoners from other states.
“We better get creative,” Nungesser warned, “or it’s going to be a money hole we’re pumping funds into without providing any benefit to the taxpayers.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.