ST. GABRIEL — About 20 trusties at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center were manning two partially automated sandbagging machines late Friday morning at the rear of the huge state prison complex in Iberville Parish ahead of Tropical Storm Barry.
[Update, 10 a.m. Saturday: Barry has been upgraded to a hurricane.]
The guys, all serving time in state prison for assorted crimes, were 2½ days into a sandbagging effort that had already cranked out 21,450 sandbags before midday Friday.
The trusties volunteered for the duty outside and have been working 12-hour shifts in the daylong operation to help people prepare for what's expected to be a Category 1 hurricane when Barry makes landfall Saturday, the officials said.
"We'll do it until the need is over," said Perry Stagg, the deputy warden at Elayn Hunt.
Barry is estimated to bring 10 to 20 inches in the Baton Rouge area.
The bags have gone to Iberville Parish government to disperse throughout that parish, to the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging, to the general public and to the Pontchartrain Levee District.
At each of the two machines parked next to the "pole barn" on Friday, one inmate filled a bag with sand and then passed it to one of the men seated on plastic milk cartons in a semicircle around the inmate. Those men sealed the bag and loaded it for pickup by a front loader to carry to waiting dump trucks.
Outside the barn Friday, drizzle fell and the wind started to whip through ominous skies as Barry inched its way toward the Louisiana coast.
Stagg said each of the trusties has been put to use to take advantage of his own skills.
One trusty hustling around the site Friday replaced a key belt that drives the sandbagging machines. A belt had broken earlier in the morning on one of the two machines. The break had slowed operations for about an hour until a replacement could be installed, Stagg said.
For another trusty, Robert Whitaker, 61, sandbag duty was old hat. Whitaker, who has been in prison for 36 years, was on sandbag duty in 2016 and volunteered again.
He said he enjoys the work outside and filling in where needed. He said wanted to help out in the community and with those who are less fortunate.
"And they need the help," Whitaker said. "They need the bags really bad."
Prison officials said all but two other state prisons in Louisiana are also involved in sandbagging operations, including Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Stagg said the sandbagging is part state Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc's and Warden Tim Hooper's ongoing efforts to support communities that are home to state prisons.