Prisoners waded out of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women six months ago, each clutching two laundry bags of belongings, as floodwaters engulfed the state's only prison for female offenders.
They won't return for at least a year.
Renovations and reconstruction at the St. Gabriel facility are underway, but state Department of Public Safety and Corrections officials believe the $4 million repair project will take that long to be completed. Meanwhile, prisoners and corrections employees are scattered at other facilities around the state.
The water level in the prison on August 16 — the day state officials made the call to evacuate — fluctuated between ankle-deep to up to the hip, said Seth Smith, chief of operations for the state agency. Still, Smith recalled that he kept finding that whatever new boots or waders he put on still weren’t enough.
While describing the day-long evacuation process, Seth Smith had a Freudian slip that summed up the situation.
“We started at about 11:30 a.m. that afternoon. … I think we didn’t get the last boat out, er last boat. That last bus load out. I’m sitting here picturing all the water,” Smith said. “It felt like a boat. We didn’t get the last bus load out until well after 9:30 p.m.”
The rising water displaced 1,015 inmates, including 95 women who had previously evacuated from Livingston Parish Prison, to four facilities across the state.
The event was a first for Shanda Crain, who has been incarcerated for about two decades. She said they were watching the news all morning, but didn’t know they would be personally affected. Once they got the evacuation order and left, however, things changed.
“It became very different when we walked out of LCIW and water was up over our knees,” Crain said.
Helen Burns, who has been an inmate in the prison for about as long as Crain, said the amount of unknowns made it difficult to pack quickly, which may be a familiar experience to those outside of prison walls.
“The thing was to figure out what was most important,” Burns said. “We didn’t know where we were going or how long we would be gone.”
The inmates were then handcuffed together in pairs. They waded out to the buses with their belongings in tow.
Both Burns and Crain were with the group of inmates to move to C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy, just 16 miles from the Texas border. They were not allowed to know where they were going so the women occupied their time by searching for street signs. Crain was surprised to see signs for Texas as they got closer to DeQuincy.
The largest group of offenders went to Phelps, while some were sent to the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women in Tallulah and Avoyelles Parish jail. Almost 40 women were sent to the Louisiana Penitentiary in Angola, the maximum security prison that normally only houses men.
Phelps, a work release facility for male prisoners, and Angola both had open buildings that the women moved into and had clear separation from the male inmates. The Avoyelles jail already houses both male and female inmates.
About a thousand inmates from the state's only women's prison are now being housed at various lockups, including privately-run facilities, aft…
As the flood waters receded and damage was assessed, Smith said he realized that a more long-term solution needed to be found. Corrections officials eyed the Jetson Center for Youth, a juvenile correctional facility in Baker that closed in 2014.
After two weeks in Phelps, 54 inmates were chosen to move to Jetson and renovate it for 233 others to join them later.
Crain was part of that convoy and called the bus ride to Jetson somber because they did not know what to expect or, again, where they were going.
“We all prayed on the way and when we got here … we came in and they said here’s your lunch and be ready to work in an hour,” Crain said.
They cleaned, painted and organized the shuttered facility, all the while keeping in mind that their goal was to “get it ready … to get everybody back together again,” Crain said.
A month after the evacuation in mid-September, Jetson was ready. There are now 287 inmates at the facility, while another two hundred prisoners transferred to a separate dorm building at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, the prison for male inmates next door to LCIW in St. Gabriel, which didn't flood. Some inmates were moved to other local facilities.
“We managed to evacuate this entire facility, spread them out and then bring them back in and consolidate at few facilities with minimal incidents,” Smith said. “That’s just a lot of teamwork.”
Though visitation and programming was suspended at first, it eventually returned as daily operations got up and running, Smith said. They've also reinstated academic and trade programs.
“We don’t want them to lose an opportunity to gain knowledge, skills and abilities to help them on the outside,” Smith said.
One option for programming is the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which operates within various Louisiana prisons. Burns, a seminary student, ministered to other inmates while at Phelps by just talking with and supporting them. For her, it has also been a lesson.
“In order to receive … we have to lose,” Burns said. “In order to reach people, we have to be on the same level as them.”
On top of the damage at the prison and the ensuing headaches of moving inmates around, many LCIW employees suffered damage at their own homes. Others needed to help out family members who lost their houses.
Master Sergeant Yulonda Brooks flooded personally. Although it was challenging to balance her work and personal life, “I knew I had to do it,” she said.
“That’s one of the heroic things about the situation is that we had employees who lost everything, but (they) were committed to getting this population out safely into another location in spite of their families being in distress,” LCIW Warden Frederick Boutté said.
Renovations are underway at LCIW and remediation is 80 percent complete. But officials say a January 2018 reopening date would be ambitious.
Currently, the ticket price hovers around $4.07 million, which will be mostly covered by FEMA and insurance. But the price is very likely to increase once electrical and mechanical surveying is completed, Smith said. For example, it is still unclear if the electronic lock system sustained damage or not.
Even though the level of water varied across the prison, it sat for longer than in most places throughout the Baton Rouge area because the prison is on the fringes of the Spanish Lake area. High water in the swamp basin became trapped behind Manchac-Alligator Bayou roads and took weeks to drain.
Because the water lingered, even a few inches did serious damage. Water wicked up the walls and soaked into the concrete blocks, which requires special cleaning.
All linens, all personal items, most furniture and the entire sewing shop, where inmates use newfound skills to produce state prison linens, were lost and will need to be replaced.
Some things, however, cannot be replaced, which prompted some reflection for Crain.
Her kids, now 28, 30 and 31 years old, were 5, 7 and 8 years old when she went to prison. She lost many mementos of them like pictures and letters. Many women also left behind pardon board portfolios and program certificates that “show that you’ve become a different person,” Crain said.
She said it makes her realize what matters in life.
“‘Do not store your treasures up on this earth,’” Crain said, paraphrasing the biblical passage. “I think we tend to do that in prison, out of prison. … As quickly as it’s given, it can be taken.”
With tears rolling down her cheeks, Crain said the flood losses made her reflect on the reason she is in prison in the first place. News accounts show that a Shanda Crain was found guilty in 1997 of the murder of her parents in Washington Parish. Prosecutors says she wanted the $300,000 life insurance benefits to fund her video poker habits.
“It’s a reminder of what you took from other people when they became a victim of your crime,” she said.