Livingston LPSO

A Louisiana state prisoner walked off his landscaping job Thursday afternoon before being recaptured hours later — the latest mishap for the Livingston Parish work release program to which he was assigned.

The inmate was Paul Villar, a nonviolent offender, according to the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office. He left the site of his landscaping job in Ascension Parish but was found soon thereafter and taken back into custody about 7:30 p.m. in Gonzales. 

Villar was later booked into the Ascension Parish jail, officials said.

The Livingston Parish work release program is run by a private company called Lock5. It operates out of a 150-bed facility off U.S. 190 in Walker on Sheriff's Office land near the Waste Management landfill. 

Lock5 has been running the program through a contract with the Sheriff's Office since January 2018. The company also pays rent to the Sheriff's Office, which pledged $2.8 million in 2014 to build the facility on U.S. 190. 

The escape Thursday isn't the first in the program's relatively short history.

One inmate escaped on Mardi Gras and was captured days later in St. Amant. He walked off a construction job in Denham Springs, officials said at the time.

Another escape occurred in December 2019 when Keith Bickham was able to drive to Lacombe, where he broke into the home of his estranged wife and child and pushed his wife to the floor. He was later arrested on felony home invasion and felony domestic abuse and child endangerment.

Two months before that, a participant in the program died from head injuries he sustained during a construction accident. Ronnie Francois was struck by a falling beam while working at a location in the 36000 block of Corbin Road in Walker on a job assignment manufacturing construction materials. 

Lori Steele, a spokeswoman with the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office, said the agency takes "these types of incidents seriously."

She said it's important to remember that all inmates participating in the program have been convicted of nonviolent offenses. She also said the overall benefit is significant: Work release programs have been found to reduce recidivism rates.

"At times, an inmate may take advantage. When they do, we immediately address it," Steele said. "But, it is critical to give these inmates — who qualify — the training and experience they need to set them on a better path. … Most times, they remain with their employer upon release."

She said that despite the program's challenges, "we will continue to press forward."

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick also emphasized the importance of transitional work programs in preparing inmates for life after their release. He said they provide an invaluable opportunity for some select inmates to become productive members of society again. 

He said the department is not investigating the Livingston Parish program but maintains oversight of all its work release programs throughout the state. Recent inspections showed nothing out of the ordinary in Livingston, Pastorick said.

"You want somebody to release into society with the ability to earn a living and pay their bills — get on their feet immediately upon their release — that's what you want," he said. "Unfortunately there are a few knuckleheads who make the rest of them look bad. … This happens all over the country. We're not immune to it."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.