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Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) has been closed since the August 2016 flooding in South Louisiana,

Almost six years after Louisiana’s only prison for women closed for good in the wake of disastrous flooding around Baton Rouge, the state has yet to break ground on a new facility that was originally slated to cost around $100 million.

And a major complication has arisen in the meantime: Thanks to skyrocketing prices for building materials, the estimated price tag for the new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel recently shot up by more than a third, to about $138 million, officials said.

Officials in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration discussed scaling back the project or removing certain elements, but they ultimately decided to build the complete project. While FEMA is covering about $44 million of the project, Louisiana taxpayers will cover the rest, including the increase.

The project was designed by GraceHebert Architects, whose principal owner, Jerry Hebert, is a close friend of Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. GraceHebert has been paid more than $4 million so far and stands to make a little over $6 million for the work.

As with most state building contracts, GraceHebert’s fee was set as a percentage of the project’s expected cost. If the firm’s fee were recalculated based on the new cost, GraceHebert could see its fee boosted to $8 million or more.

But Jacques Berry, director of policy for Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, said he does not expect the contract’s expanded cost to make GraceHebert eligible for a windfall.

“We don’t see a reason for it to change,” Berry said.

Hebert did not return a call seeking comment.

Since the old facility was declared uninhabitable in 2016, Louisiana’s roughly 1,000 women prisoners have been housed in temporary quarters. Some have been held at the nearby Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a men’s facility in St. Gabriel, while others have been kept at the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, a shuttered juvenile lockup.

Berry said the yearslong delay in getting the project off the ground largely owes to the state having to wait for FEMA to approve its portion of funding. Initially, the prison was deemed eligible for a $4 million repair job, but state officials eventually persuaded FEMA the complex was not salvageable.

Just last week, officials sent out a contract listing the new price tag to Baton Rouge construction firm Arkel, which is working in concert with Alabama-based company Caddell on the prison. When the document is signed by all parties, officials will arrange a pre-construction meeting to lay out a timeline for the project.

Additional money for the project was approved by the Legislature in this year’s capital outlay budget. The state Bond Commission, which meets in July, must approve some of the financing for the project.

Officials expect the contract to be executed in the next 30 days, along with a notice to proceed with the project, according to DOC Undersecretary Thomas Bickham. Work is likely to begin soon after that, with an estimated completion about two and a half years later.

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After the storm, the facility sat in water for about a month. When inspections began to determine repairs, officials quickly realized the cost to remodel would be almost as much as the cost to simply build a new campus, according to Bickham. Based on LCIW’s status as an emergency operations center, FEMA agreed to a new and improved project.

“Whatever FEMA was going to give us, from a financial standpoint, we were going to take and use for a new facility,” Bickham said.

FEMA has over time agreed to kick in more money, finally settling on $44 million early this year. But by then, the cost for materials had shot up by about 30%.

“It’s been a very long, frustrating, arduous process,” Bickham said. “We’re at the point now where we’re ready to start and turn dirt.”

Improvements for the campus include expanded medical and mental health treatment areas, open-concept dormitories and dedicated spaces for training specialties like welding, Bickham said. Most notably, a new postpartum wing will be added to allow inmates who give birth to spend time with their newborn up to a certain point.

The Advocate | The Times-Picayune sought to review correspondence between Hebert and LeBlanc during the time the LCIW project was still being scoped, in part because the relationship between Hebert, the architect, and LeBlanc, the DOC secretary, has spawned controversy before.

Hebert had to pay a $17,216 fine to the state in 2019 after an investigation found his dealings with the DOC on a different contract violated state ethics laws. He and LeBlanc are close: The two their spouses vacationed in Europe together several years ago. They live down the street from one another and share tickets to LSU games, emails show.

In addition, Hebert is married to LeBlanc’s niece, and Hebert’s daughter and son-in-law both work at the corrections department, and both have risen quickly through the ranks to executive positions. Hebert’s daughter, Andrea Buttross, was promoted in March to deputy assistant secretary of education for the corrections department. She was chosen from among 14 applicants, records show.

The correspondence the DOC turned over to the newspaper — which took more than six months to produce — show that LeBlanc and Hebert had a number of private meetings to discuss the project, though department officials previously told the newspaper that LeBlanc played a minimal role in the rebuild.

"Secretary LeBlanc and his leadership team met with the firm to discuss the aesthetics and design of the LCIW facility, just as he and his team would with any firm," DOC spokesperson Ken Pastorick said at the time.

Emails show the two corresponded privately, without the leadership team, in late 2019 to hash over the size and scope of the facility — debating everything from the number of dorms to the number of beds in each dorm.

One email from Hebert to LeBlanc simply says: “Call me.”

In another contemporaneous email, Hebert wrote LeBlanc to say: “Can you peel away an hour to meet just you to meet LCIW? Want to talk about what could be without any preconceived notions.”


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com