A Slidell woman whose husband was killed while he was in a controversial work-release program has become the second person to sue the now-shuttered Northshore Workforce LLC — and various officials and agencies that had authority over it — in connection with an inmate’s death.
Michel Miller, wife of James Miller III, filed suit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge last week, accusing the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, Northshore Workforce and Victory Bible Church of negligence in failing to adequately supervise her husband. That failure led to his death a year ago in New Orleans East, the suit alleges.
Northshore Workforce was shut down by Strain last month following a lengthy series of investigative reports by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV about lax conditions at the transitional-work program.
Such programs are designed to give inmates nearing the end of their sentences job experience and money, but they are also lucrative for their operators, who can keep 62 percent of inmates’ gross wages or $63.50 per day, whichever is less. Strain gave Northshore Workforce the contract to run the program without seeking bids and on terms more favorable to the owners than is typical for such programs.
James Miller was serving out a sentence for fourth-offense DWI and had spent just two weeks at Northshore Workforce, which assigned him to work for Victory Bible Church. The church had a contract with the program to employ inmates as general laborers, and Michel Miller said her husband’s job was to wash cars.
But James Miller left his job site on April 19, 2013, to go to his rental property in New Orleans East, where he was shot and killed.
Michel Miller’s suit, filed on behalf of her and her young son, follows a suit filed by Jane LeBlanc, whose son, Jonathan Doré, died of a heroin overdose while in the program. LeBlanc did not name the Department of Corrections in her lawsuit, filed earlier this month in 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington. A federal lawsuit that she is attempting to revive after it was dismissed last year didn’t mention DOC either. Her lawyer, Al Robert, said he had no evidence that DOC had knowledge of problems at the facility.
But Miller’s suit claims that DOC, along with the other defendants, failed to properly administer the work-release program and failed to set adequate rules and standards.
The suit says the state department knew the rules and standards at Northshore Workforce were inadequate and that the violations showed a lack of supervision and failure to correct a deficiency until after Miller’s death.
The sheriff also knew that Northshore Workforce wasn’t adequately supervising inmates but failed to take appropriate action until Miller’s death, the suit claims.
Northshore Workforce knowingly and intentionally failed to supervise the program adequately, the suit says, and was aware that inmates were not always at their assigned places of employment.
The defendants’ breaches of duty “allowed (Miller) to be in a place other than Victory Bible Church, without supervision, which subsequently resulted in his murder in New Orleans, instead of being in St. Tammany Parish performing work as the defendants should have ensured he would be doing,” the suit says.
Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for DOC, said the department had not yet been served with the lawsuit and generally does not comment on pending litigation.
George Bonnett, spokesman for the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office, said that agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Pastor Frederick Young Sr., of Victory Bible Church, and Northshore Workforce officials did not return calls for comment.
Strain defended the program in an earlier interview, saying Miller had been assigned to work for a well-respected preacher at a reputable church. “I’m sure that any reasonable person would have confidence in the potential for success with that arrangement,’’ he said, adding that Miller had paid for his decision to break the program rules with his life.
In an earlier interview about Miller’s death, Laborde said Miller and another offender had left the job site and gone to New Orleans after being picked up by a friend. She said DOC had determined that Miller’s unauthorized absence from the job had happened before and that the employer was aware of the situation and didn’t report it to Northshore Workforce.
Young said in an earlier interview that Miller had left work without permission.
Northshore Workforce terminated its contract with Victory Bible Church because the church had not provided proper supervision and oversight, according to an earlier interview with Lester Mitchell, Northshore Workforce’s program director.
Michel Miller said Monday that she and her family are still waiting for her husband’s accused killer, Richard Thompson, to come to trial. The family recently marked the first anniversary of his death.
“It was kind of tough, right before Easter,’’ she said.