David Graham

David Graham

For the third time in two weeks, authorities Wednesday were chasing a West Baton Rouge Parish work-release inmate who walked away from the program.

The latest escape occurred around 8 a.m. when David Graham walked off from his job site in Baton Rouge.

Graham's escape is another ding against the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office that runs the program, which was called out in an audit report last year as having the most inmate escapes from work release over a three-year period.

But state and parish officials defended the program. They say the small number of inmates who walk off jobs or escape from work release facilities doesn't take away from the benefits of a program that greatly reduces the likelihood of offenders committing crimes again once released from state custody.

"Less than one half of one percent of work release participants walk off from their job. While even one walk off is unacceptable, we feel this validates our process," Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said in an emailed response to questions Wednesday. "These are low-risk offenders, and the majority of them will release from DOC custody within a year."

Only certain state prisoners are allowed in work-release programs. Those barred from participating include inmates convicted of certain sex crimes or violent crimes, as well as repeat offenders. Inmates are eligible to participate when they have three to four years left on their sentences.

Pastorick said the inmates go through an "extensive" screening process before they're allowed to participate, including a review of the offender's previous criminal and disciplinary history, medical and mental health status, victim and community concerns, and outstanding warrants and detainers.

"Statistics prove participation in work release greatly reduces recidivism, and increases the chances of a successful return to society," Pastorick wrote.

The West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office is simultaneously conducting several internal investigations into the three latest incidents. So far, these probes have resulted in the suspension of two deputies who work at the parish's work release facility in Port Allen, although a spokesman said one deputy's actions weren't related to the escapes.

The first was suspended for two weeks without pay for not properly performing a headcount that could have alerted authorities sooner to the escape of Mertis Wade when he walked off from his job site in Brusly on Valentine's Day. Supervisors at the restaurant where Wade was working also failed to notice he had walked away.

Wade, who authorities said had gone to visit his girlfriend, was tracked down four days later at a Mardi Gras parade in Metairie.

Col. Richie Johnson, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said on Wednesday a second deputy was suspended two days without a pay for sleeping on the job. Johnson said the issue was discovered when surveillance footage at the work release facility was pulled for the investigation into Wade's escape.

"That escape didn't happen because he was sleeping on the job," Johnson said. "We caught it because we were making sure they were doing their counts right."

On Graham's escape Wednesday, Johnson said they believe the 34-year-old Leesville man walked off from his job site approximately 15 minutes after he was dropped off by deputies that morning. Graham's supervisor immediately informed authorities about what happened, Johnson said, which employers are contracted to do when they participate in the program.

Graham is facing an escape count when caught. He was serving time on a distribution of cocaine charge, according to Johnson.

At least seven inmates have escaped from job sites or the WBRSO work release facility within a little more than a year's time.

Graham's escape was preceded just two days earlier by the escape and capture of Rickey Lake, a state trusty who was serving time for theft when he climbed out of a window and jumped the fence at the work release facility around 12:30 a.m. Monday. He was captured approximately 9 1/2 hours later in a wooded area near Erwinville.

It was reported by authorities that Lake had escaped to visit his girlfriend.

Back in June 2016, trusty Haron Link used a dummy he built to fool officers into believing he was asleep during a routine headcount so he could go on a marijuana run. He was caught when he was trying to sneak back into the work release facility about three hours later.

The most high-profile recent escape occurred in Nov. 2015 when Emanuel Ray Jones and two other inmates escaped the facility and committed crimes in Baton Rouge. The trio was accused of physically assaulting, kidnapping and robbing a man. Officials have said that they bribed an inmate that a guard allowed to conduct the head counts to fudge numbers that night.

Deputies were suspended without pay to varying degrees in every incident expect for latest two incidents involving Lake and Graham.

"At least 90 percent of the escapes from our facility are not because we don't have proper protocols and policies in place, it's from employees not following and implementing the protocols," Johnson said.

The April 2016 report from the state's Legislative Auditor 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.

Of the total 254 reported inmate escapes between fiscal years 2013-15, there were 22 from West Baton Rouge Parish, which is believed to be the largest work-release facility in the state.

State auditors suggested the use of electronic monitoring, or ankle bracelets, could reduce the number of escapes. This technology was effective a work release program in Calcasieu Parish, the report said.

But Johnson called the idea a "feel good remedy" that gives the public the illusion of safety, but does little in helping authorities capture inmates who have evaded custody.

"If I put an ankle bracelet on you and you go to a jobsite and you want to leave, you're going to cut it off and walk off," he said. "The only advantage would be that I'd instantly know when you cut it off. But we get that already when an employer calls us up and tells us."

"There won't be any real value in helping us find the person, which to me is the purpose," he added.

Pastorick added that electronic monitoring would cost the department more than $5 million to implement, which the state likely couldn't afford given the current budget crisis.

"We continue to work with work release operators, as well as employers in improving operations and refining policies and procedures to make this program as successful as can be," he said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.