Unreported escape, inmate death at Slidell work-release program raise concerns of incoming sheriff _lowres

Randy Smith, left, and Jack Strain

Convicted drug dealer Cecil Martin, a member of a violent New Orleans street gang, had been in a privatized St. Tammany Parish work-release program for less than two months when he bolted from his job site on St. Patrick’s Day, triggering a search that ended with his arrest in New Orleans the following day.

But while law enforcement officials looked for Martin, the public was never informed that the 24-year-old inmate, who had been sentenced to 10 years on drug and weapons charges in mid-2015, was on the loose.

Martin’s employer notified St. Tammany Workforce Solutions, which runs the work-release program under a contract with St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain’s office, that Martin had walked off the job site. Staff members there in turn notified the Sheriff’s Office and the state Department of Corrections, according to sheriff’s spokesman George Bonnett.

Bonnett said the decision to keep quiet about the escape was in keeping with normal policy.

“We do not, as a rule, issue press releases concerning the activities or status of transitional work program participants not under our care, custody or control,” he said.

He cited two exceptions: when the Sheriff’s Office believes the person poses an immediate threat to the community, and when the office believes issuing such a notice “would not harm our ability to quickly locate him.”

Since a private operator took over the Slidell-area facility three years ago, four inmates have walked off their jobs. The public was not notified in any of those cases.

But Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith, who will be sworn in as sheriff July 1, has a different view on getting the word out about escapees. The public has a right to know, he said.

“We want these people apprehended as quick as possible. Quicker the better to get that information out to the public so we can get that individual picked up and locked up,” he said.

Smith, who defeated Strain’s bid for a fifth term last fall, has other, more fundamental changes in mind for the work-release facility, which houses about 100 inmates. The contract with St. Tammany Workforce Solutions runs out at the end of June, and Smith plans to bring the program back in-house. It will be staffed by trained, certified corrections deputies, he said — as it was before Strain made the contract deal in 2013.

Work-release programs are designed to give inmates nearing the end of their sentences an opportunity to work by day while staying at a secure facility by night, a way to ease them back into society.

But they have had a controversial history under Strain.

In 2008, he launched a work-release program in Covington that was run by close associates, including his longtime campaign treasurer, under a no-bid contract. He then privatized the Slidell facility on Production Drive that had operated in-house for about 15 years, again giving the contract to a group of friends after informally notifying the public by mentioning his plans in a story that appeared in a weekly paper.

Allen Tingle, one of the owners of St. Tammany Workforce Solutions, said he is a friend of Strain. One of the company’s officers, Brandy Hanson, formerly worked for the Sheriff’s Office and is related to a family that has close ties to Strain, with at least a half-dozen members on the sheriff’s payroll.

Two years ago, Strain closed the Covington work-release program, run by Northshore Workforce LLC, after a rash of escapes there. The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV had published numerous stories that highlighted lax oversight and brought to light three inmate deaths there, two related to drug use. State Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc called revelations about problems there “an embarrassment to us all” in a 2014 interview.

Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street also launched an investigation into the program; he said last week it is still open.

The Slidell facility has stirred less controversy, and Tingle said the Department of Corrections considers it a model facility.

But Martin’s escape follows the recent death of one inmate and the hospitalization of another in what Smith said were possible drug overdoses.

Timothy Hoffpauir, 56, died at the work-release facility on Jan. 25. The Coroner’s Office has not yet released the cause of death, pending toxicology reports.

Smith, the sheriff-elect, said those incidents and the escape raise concerns for him. “That tells me there’s something wrong,” he said.

While he acknowledged that such incidents happen, he stressed the need for trained management to limit liability for the Sheriff’s Office and to protect the public.

Operators of work-release programs are allowed under state rules to take 62 percent of inmates’ gross wages, or up to $63.50 per day, to pay for their room and board. Smith said it appears to have been a lucrative business.

“To privatize it seems foolish when those revenues that are being made privately should be coming back to the department,” he said.

Smith said the current operator of the work-release facility has sought permission from the state to relocate to Washington Parish. But Smith said he met with LeBlanc and told him that he wants to run the program in-house.

“He had no problems with allowing us to do so,” Smith said.

Smith said he’s not aware of any further efforts to open a work-release program in Washington Parish.

But Tingle said four sheriffs are interested in having him run work-release programs for them, and he wants to stay in the business for the sake of his employees as well as for the inmates, whom he described as nervous about the future under Smith. They all want to stay with him, he said, but he noted that their placement is up to the Department of Corrections.

“Whatever they need, we give it to them, as long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Tingle said, saying that a high number of inmates in his facility have earned early release because he runs an effective program.

As for Martin, Tingle said walk-offs happen, although he watches new inmates carefully to weed out those he thinks are apt to do so.

“His girlfriend picked him up and took him across the lake. It happens,” he said. “He wasn’t a hardened criminal. He was a dope dealer, and he was caught the next day.”

Martin’s girlfriend, Iesha Theophile, 24, also was arrested.

Martin was prosecuted under a state racketeering charge in 2010, accused of being part of a violent New Orleans street gang known as the 6th Ward D-Block. Authorities at the time said the group had terrorized neighbors along a stretch of Dumaine Street.

In 2015, he pleaded guilty to distribution of a Schedule II narcotic, being a felon in possession of a firearm and possession of a stolen firearm.

During the lengthy transition between Strain’s administration and his, Smith said, he has been meeting with employers throughout the parish to make sure they feel comfortable with his plans.

“I don’t want to have a controversial division within my agency,” he said. “We can look at it down the road and see how it’s working — if it’s productive, if it’s bringing in revenue. If not, I would then consider shutting it down.”

But, he said, shutting it down at this point wouldn’t be fair to businesses that rely on the inmates’ labor.

“It provides a good service, a good re-entry point for the inmates, and if it works, if we manage it properly, I think it will be successful,” Smith said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.