Corrections officials are using much of their savings from Louisiana’s trimmed prison population to house inmates from the state’s biggest parishes closer to home in a handful of jails with more services.
Fewer state prisoners will serve their sentences at often far-flung parish jails in rural areas with minimal programs or educational opportunities, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc told state senators at a hearing Tuesday.
The effort so has focused on inmates from the state’s five biggest parishes: East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Caddo.
Inmates serving lengthy prison terms for serious crimes, or those with severe medical issues, are usually housed in one of the state’s seven prisons. But local parish lockups, which house about half the state’s roughly 32,000 prisoners, have long taken in most of those serving short prison terms.
LeBlanc and other prison officials have long complained that many of those local jails amount to “lock-and-feeds,” spartan facilities with few services for inmates, such as, mental health or addiction treatment and job training. That’s left inmates cycling out of the prison system after serving short stints ill-prepared to rebuild their lives on the outside.
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Most of those from Orleans and Jefferson parishes sentenced to fewer than five years behind bars are already being sent to the large Plaquemines Parish jail south of the city, LeBlanc said, where the Department of Corrections has lined up contracts with community groups and Delgado Community College, among others, to provide services.
“That facility is going to be more like a state prison,” LeBlanc said of the 1,100-bed Plaquemines Parish facility, built shortly after Hurricane Katrina. “We’re going to invest in vocational programs, educational programs, treatment programs, mental health programs before they return to Orleans and Jefferson.”
LeBlanc said he’s trying to work out a similar deal for inmates with short sentences from East Baton Rouge Parish but hasn’t inked a final deal. Local jails in Lafayette, Lafourche or Concordia parishes appear to be likely destinations, LeBlanc said.
Right now, LeBlanc told senators, those convicted of lower-level felonies in Baton Rouge “get on a bus or a van and you're going to Catahoula for a couple of years” before being dropped back off in Baton Rouge. LeBlanc told The Advocate last fall that Baton Rouge residents serving state prison time were released from more than 90 different facilities in the past year.
“That’s a recipe for disaster,” LeBlanc added, “and we’re changing that.”
A bipartisan overhaul of the state’s prison and sentencing laws passed by the Legislature in 2017 has cut the state’s prison population by about 3,000 inmates.
State-run prisons have remained full but fewer state prisoners are being sent to local sheriff-run jails to serve their sentences, said Natalie Laborde, the Department of Corrections’ executive counsel. The state pays sheriffs $24.39 per day to house each state inmate.
The reduced prison population saved the prison system about $12.2 million in 2017, according to the Department of Corrections, of which $4.2 million was set aside for investments in the prison system.
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Prison officials are estimating roughly $17 million in savings for 2018. LeBlanc told lawmakers he plans to expand that initiative to more of the state’s population centers such as Lafayette, Lake Charles and Monroe by concentrating prisoners with short sentences from those areas in better-equipped facilities.
“We’ll be almost to 70 percent of our prison population with some adequate services before they discharge back into their communities,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc, in an interview with The Advocate Tuesday afternoon, said he hoped to launch that reorganization by September or October.
Senators also asked LeBlanc, Laborde and other Department of Corrections officials about a string of recent scandals in the state's prison system, including the federal conviction earlier this year of former Raymond Laborde Correctional Center warden Nate Cain for racking up thousands of dollars in personal purchases on government credit cards.
Cain, the son of legendary former Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Burl Cain, pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud. His ex-wife, Tonia Bandy, pleaded guilty and several other prison employees have been fired as part of scandals at the Cottonport prison.
Thomas Bickham, the department's undersecretary, said the prison system responded by "drastically" cutting the number of official credit cards handed out to employees, more closely monitoring purchases and requiring more levels of approvals.
LeBlanc also referenced several other investigations into the prison system during his remarks, including an ongoing FBI probe into drug smuggling at Angola that's led to criminal charges against a former assistant warden and several other arrests.
"We are working with the FBI," LeBlanc said. "The FBI is pretty much stationed at Angola. We’re in a major, I’d call it investigation right now at Angola."
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