Prison Enterprises, the for-profit arm of the Louisiana Department of Corrections that uses inmate labor in various businesses, was scrutinized for the second time in two decades by the state Legislative Auditor's office, finding  some of the same issues have lingered.

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a statewide civil investigation into Louisiana's inmate release practices, the agency announced Thursday.

Investigators will review the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections to make sure it is releasing inmates on time — including those housed in both state and local facilities. 

The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section will conduct the  investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern, Middle, and Western Districts of Louisiana.

"The department has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in this matter," a Department of Justice statement said. 

Various law offices and the MacArthur Justice Center have filed a series of lawsuits in recent years alleging thousands of inmates in Louisiana are detained past their release dates each year. They argue this costs the state millions of dollars in housing.

"The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) looks forward to fully cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ)," said Ken Pastorick, DOC spokesperson. "The DOC takes this very seriously, and will assist in whatever way necessary in this investigation."

A state legislative audit report released in October 2019 said that Louisiana’s prisons failed to properly track inmate release dates. Auditors found an inadequate review process of sentencing calculations that they said has led to errors determining inmates’ good time status, parole eligibility and rehabilitation program credits — all factors in deciding these dates.

A similar state audit in 2017 echoed these concerns and criticized the department’s lack of consistent policies for release date calculations.

Court filings released this year revealed that DOC officials knew as early as 2012 that the system for calculating these dates is flawed and has led to people being incarcerated for longer than they should.

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At the time, civil rights attorneys — who represent clients who said they were over-detained — estimated that Louisiana inmates have been held past their release dates for a collective total of more than 3,000 years since 2012, costing the state millions.

DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc acknowledged in a May 2019 deposition filed into court record in February that delayed and inaccurate sentence computations were a "big problem" for the department.

"It's not that we're ignoring the problem," LeBlanc said during the deposition. "We're fighting every avenue … to fix this, and we just run into walls."

The time calculation process, which LeBlanc likened to “herding cats,” also involves an antiquated system for transferring paperwork from one agency to another, often requiring records to be physically driven across the state for hand delivery. And many of Louisiana’s inmates are housed in local jails in addition to state prisons, which means DOC officials must rely on parish-by-parish cooperation to gather the necessary paperwork.

Changes to the state's sentencing laws further complicate things for the DOC employees charged with processing an estimated 60,000 time computations processed each calendar year.

William Most, an attorney who represents various clients filing lawsuits with overdetention claims, said in a statement Thursday his team welcomes the involvement of the Department of Justice.

"Louisiana's government must end its illegal, unjust, and expensive practice of holding thousands of people for weeks or months past the end of their sentence."

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at