A recent state legislative audit report singled out the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office for having the most inmate escapes from its work-release program over a three-year period.
The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t dispute the numbers, but a spokesman says they are misleading because most of the escapes noted in the report occurred while inmates were on job assignments and under the supervision of their employers, not the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s kind of unfair because they’re not in our custody or control in those incidents,” said Col. Richie Johnson. “But we get dinged with the escape.”
The audit report stressed the need for better oversight in the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections’ transitional work programs — a majority of which are run by local sheriffs.
West Baton Rouge Parish, believed to be the largest work-release facility in the state, had 22 reported inmate escapes between fiscal years 2013-15, according to the audit report.
Of the reported escapes, 16 involved offenders walking off their job sites. The report notes those escapees were apprehended and charged with escape when they returned, usually several hours later.
The other six escapes highlighted in the report were apprehended “within days of their escape,” the audit says.
A recent incident involving three work-release inmates put a public spotlight on how the West Baton Rouge Parish program is being run. The trio managed to flee the parish’s work-release facility Nov. 8 and were accused of physically assaulting, kidnapping and robbing a man.
The victim told authorities he also was stuffed into the trunk of his car in the parking lot of a Baton Rouge hotel. The incident isn’t included in the legislative audit report because it fell outside of the time period that was examined.
An internal investigation discovered that one of the facility guards was letting another inmate perform routine head counts. The three escapees bribed that inmate to forge head count numbers that night. The Sheriff’s Office was unaware of their absence until an arrest warrant was issued for one of the inmates a month later in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The Advocate reviewed incident reports for escapes mentioned in the state audit and found that most involved offenders who left job assignments for brief periods to hook up with women.
However, one work-release inmate is believed to have walked off his job several times without his supervisor’s knowledge. When the offender wasn’t at his job when a deputy showed up to transport him back to the work-release facility, deputies later discovered a crack-cocaine rock in his locker at the parish facility, according to a report.
“We all know human error occurs, which is obvious with the incident we had in November,” Johnson said. “To my knowledge, the November incident is the only time inmates escaped and committed a crime.”
The escapes were rarely, if ever, reported to the public.
Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the department generally leaves public notification up to the program providers, which are mostly sheriffs’ offices.
“The department does notify any victims that may be registered for the escaped offender,” Laborde said in an email.
Johnson said the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office would make decisions about notifying the public on a case-by-case basis. A determining factor, he said, would be whether the escapee is considered a threat to the public.
The work-release program is off-limits to inmates convicted of certain sex crimes and violent crimes, and to certain repeat offenders. Inmates are eligible to participate in work-release three to four years prior to their release dates.
As of April 19, West Baton Rouge Parish had approximately 300 inmates enrolled in its work-release program. The Sheriff’s Office became involved with the state’s transitional program in 1996 by buying out the private company that was handling it. It was the third largest in the state at that time. Officials attribute the program’s substantial growth over the past two decades to increasing demand from the private sector.
The state audit report says program providers get a per diem from the state, profits from commissary sales and 64 percent of the work-release inmates’ wages to pay for room and board at housing facilities — which totaled more than $55 million in 2015.
About 8,700 offenders participated in work-release programs throughout the state in fiscal year 2015, the audit states.
Johnson said West Baton Rouge Parish has had contracts with between 80 to 100 employers within the public and private sector in the Baton Rouge region at any given time.
Every employer must sign agreements outlining their responsibilities and the state’s expectations. The Sheriff’s Office makes unannounced visits at every job site at least once a quarter to ensure proper protocols are being followed, Johnson said.
The standard contract for the work-release program states employers are required to keep inmates under constant supervision. Employers also must agree to keep work-release facility providers apprised on the whereabouts of any inmates while under their supervision, and they must report any problems.
Johnson said he’s not aware of any time the Sheriff’s Office severed ties with an employer — even ones that have had multiple inmates temporarily leave job sites.
“It would take total neglect by an employer for us to stop sending inmates,” he said. “We look at whether they are properly reporting walk-offs or escapees. We’d approach it on a case-by-case basis.”
Legislative auditors suggested requiring inmates to wear electronic monitoring ankle bracelets while working.
That appears to have worked well for the Calcasieu Correctional Center, which, auditors said, reported no escapes during the three-year period. A work-release program in Florida, meanwhile, saw a 62 percent decrease in its number of escapes between 2012 and 2015 due to the ankle monitoring devices, the audit report says.
However, Johnson said he doesn’t think ankle bracelets are the “practical” solution to escape issues. He also said implementing that type of program in West Baton Rouge Parish could cost nearly $1.6 million annually.
“I love an ankle bracelet, but what are you accomplishing if you’re suppose to be transitioning these people back into society?” he asked. “There has to be some level of trust involved in the program.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.