When Joe Buttross was selected to fill an assistant warden position at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel a couple years ago, he had no experience working in prisons.
But he did have close connections to Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc. Buttross is married to Andrea Buttross, who oversees the the agency's educational programs and whose father — a prominent architect who made millions from DOC contracts — is married to LeBlanc's niece.
Joe Buttross came out of Prison Enterprises, the moneymaking arm of the DOC that uses inmate labor to produce goods and provide services. Before that, he oversaw a chain of pizza restaurants in Baton Rouge.
He was named assistant warden in 2019, over 16 other applicants. The move raised eyebrows among some DOC officials and observers, in part because three of those passed over were already assistant wardens. Two of them were Black; all were deemed less qualified than Buttross.
The case exemplifies a "good old boy" system that denies Black people opportunities inside the DOC, according to a group of former high-ranking Black corrections officials. The retirees formed a committee last year to study hiring and promotions and to analyze DOC payroll data.
Among their findings: While the department is very diverse — roughly half of DOC employees are Black, compared to one in three Louisianans — African Americans remain deeply underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership.
Most Black employees hold relatively low-ranking jobs, leaving the top spots for their White counterparts, according to an analysis conducted by the committee, which has been distributed among current corrections leaders and state elected officials. The Advocate performed a similar analysis and reached the same conclusion.
"It is apparent to any objective observer that the underrepresentation of Black employees in senior-level positions within the department stems directly from the effects of institutional or systemic racism, coupled with the utilization of the 'good old boy network' — a circle of influence that excludes Blacks," the committee members wrote in their report.
LeBlanc acknowledged the discouraging statistics in a letter to the committee earlier this year while defending his ongoing efforts to increase diversity. He said his administration has already made progress at various levels throughout the department, which will eventually mean more qualified Black candidates applying for top roles.
He also plans to create a new executive position to oversee diversity, equity and inclusion.
A spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards said his office is reviewing the report, adding that Edwards "recognizes that this is an important issue and area of concern and that it should be addressed and regularly reviewed across all government agencies."
Johnnie Jones, who became the first Black state prison warden in Louisiana more than four decades ago, said changing promotion practices will require nothing less than a cultural shift at the DOC. Jones said he was appointed warden back in the 1970s thanks to support from Gov. Edwin Edwards, who intervened in the selection process despite receiving pushback from his own corrections secretary.
"Racism persists," Jones said in a recent interview. "There will never be any real change in that department until you have a secretary who's committed to eliminating racial inequality. It has to come from the top."
Jones retired in 2006 after more than 30 years at the helm of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. He was proud to hold the position, but attributes his long tenure there to an invisible glass ceiling. When he applied for warden openings at larger state prisons, Jones said, he was repeatedly rejected even as less qualified White candidates advanced.
"I always made a point to work more hours than any other warden, practically camped out at the prison," he said. "Despite that, I was never able to get promoted. The system never rewarded me. What bothered me most was that no other Black folk were being promoted either."
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'The old plantation syndrome'
Because African Americans are more likely to hold lower ranking positions at the DOC, they also earn less than their White counterparts. On average, Black employees earn about $44,000, compared to roughly $52,000 for White employees, payroll data shows.
The rank and file consists of roughly 1,500 prison guards, and 56% of them are Black. These jobs are taxing for a number of reasons: low wages, challenging work environments, overnight schedules and security concerns, especially for women working among incarcerated men.
DOC leaders have long bemoaned high turnover among corrections officers. Earlier this year, LeBlanc once again asked legislators to raise guard pay, a proposal that's still pending. Leaders also discussed the possibility of using federal coronavirus relief to install air conditioning throughout state prisons, not out of concern for inmates but to improve conditions for guards.
While the grunts are mostly Black, most of the people overseeing individual prisons are White. Among the six wardens, just one is Black: Frederick Boutte, who runs the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. Overall, almost 70% of the top brass — wardens, deputy wardens and assistant wardens — is White.
"That's the old plantation syndrome — 70% of your inmates are Black, and almost all your wardens are White," said Larry Smith, a former deputy secretary of the DOC and now chair of the committee. Smith was appointed interim Angola warden in the 1980s at a time when lawsuits about prison conditions resulted in a federal consent decree.
"That stifles ambition and productivity where Blacks are concerned," Smith said. "Because you can work in the belly of a prison, you can rise up to a certain level, and then you hit a glass ceiling."
In the DOC divisions considered more desirable than prisons — including headquarters, Probation and Parole, and Prison Enterprises — White employees fill most positions. Overall, the department is about 51% White and 47% Black, according to state data.
Whalen Gibbs, who spent much of his career in Probation and Parole before becoming assistant secretary of the DOC Office of Adult Services, said he sued the department in the 90s alleging discriminatory promotion practices. He filed the lawsuit after being passed over for a promotion in lieu of a White candidate whose recent work experience included managing a bowling alley, Gibbs said.
He believes his subsequent promotions were largely a result of the lawsuit.
In addition to Gibbs, Smith and Jones, the committee includes Griffin Rivers, former deputy secretary of DOC, and Julius Burns, former assistant warden at LCIW.
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In response to criticism from the committee, corrections leaders sought to show progress.
They provided data showing that a growing percentage of African Americans hold positions that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers the highest level of leadership. As of 2020, about 30% of employees in that top EEOC category were Black and 69% were White. In 2010, the numbers were roughly 21% and 78% respectively.
Officials also noted that DOC has a higher percentage of Black employees than many other state agencies.
"Progress does not occur overnight, but I am committed to continuing the forward trajectory in this critical area through all leadership roles," LeBlanc wrote in his letter to the committee, adding that he welcomes ongoing dialogue about the issue.
DOC officials also pointed out that some senior positions see little turnover, which slows efforts to diversify.
Some of the top positions — including secretary, undersecretary, deputy secretary and assistant secretary — are appointed by the governor. And classified civil service positions, which comprise the vast majority of corrections jobs, fall under civil service rules governing hiring and promotions. That means hiring managers must choose from a limited pool of candidates once the state Civil Service Board deems them qualified.
Employees must apply to be considered for promotions. LeBlanc said a diverse pool of applicants is a necessary first step to increasing diversity.
Climbing the ladder
While acknowledging some progress, committee members claim favoritism nonetheless remains alive and well at DOC. The criticism is rooted in the last few decades of the agency's history, which saw repeated claims of unchecked cronyism and corruption as the prison system grew.
The face of that system was Burl Cain, the storied ex-warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who for decades wielded significant influence throughout the department. He helped get LeBlanc, his former close friend and subordinate, appointed DOC secretary in 2008.
Cain announced his resignation in 2016 after The Advocate exposed a series of questionable arrangements involving prison labor and private real estate deals with relatives and friends of favored inmates.
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His son Nate, former warden of Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Cottonport, pleaded guilty in 2019 to federal charges of misusing thousands of dollars in public money for personal purchases. Nate Cain had been promoted to warden in 2012, just three years after he was suspended for watching as a group of guards beat up an inmate.
Critics argue both Cains were promoted over more qualified candidates — including Jones, who competed against Burl Cain to lead Angola back in 1995. The upper ranks of the DOC are still peppered with relatives of both Cain and LeBlanc.
Jones was warden of the female prison when he applied for the Angola warden post. He had joined the DOC after 20 years in the U.S. Marines. Since his retirement, he notched another milestone in 2018, becoming, at age 83, the oldest African American to earn a doctorate from LSU.
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Both Cain and LeBlanc started their careers in Prison Enterprises, which has often become a stepping stone to more powerful positions within DOC, and remains the most disproportionately White division. Just 19% of its 70 employees are Black.
Shortly before Buttross left Prison Enterprises for the assistant warden job at Elayn Hunt in 2019 — a move signed off by Hunt warden Tim Hooper — his familial connections raised ethical questions about a construction project in downtown Baton Rouge. Buttross helped oversee the project for Prison Enterprises, working closely with the local architecture firm GraceHebert, which is owned by his father-in-law, Jerry Hebert. Prison Enterprises hired the firm without seeking bids.
The arrangement violated state ethics laws, and GraceHebert wound up paying about $17,000 to quietly settle a case with the Louisiana Board of Ethics.
But the fine didn't hurt GraceHebert's prospects in the corrections field. The firm soon reeled in a much bigger contract with the DOC to redesign the flooded Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women — this one worth about $6 million.
Committee members have called on LeBlanc to dismantle the system that enabled such dealings.
In his written response, LeBlanc called their view subjective, but acknowledged a longstanding perception of favoritism at DOC. Echoing some of his previous remarks, LeBlanc said the corrections field lends itself to close relationships between colleagues, especially in rural areas where prisons are major employers, and children of corrections workers often follow in their parents' footsteps.
"This is obviously a perception about corrections that has long been fostered by both staff and those outside of the Department," LeBlanc wrote. "It is a perception that I have personally battled in my tenure as secretary and I do recognize that this is an area where we can make improvements, in both perception and reality."
-Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.
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