The 871-bed Plaquemines Parish Detention Center in Pointe à la Hache stands perched on 19-foot concrete pylons, making it in some ways one of America’s tallest white elephants.
The jail was far too big for a parish of small population; this was one rare case where FEMA was too generous with Louisiana. Then, the “lock and feed” supply of state prisoners began drying up, courtesy of significant and bipartisan juvenile justice reforms championed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and passed by the Legislature in 2017.
The facility may finally be finding its proper role. It is being repurposed with some of the money saved by the reforms of 2017.
For the state, it’s close to major population centers in Orleans and Jefferson, so that inmates can get visits from their families. The jail is now being used to house hundreds of inmates with fewer than four years left on their sentences.
Courtesy of reinvested savings from justice reform, there is an intense commitment to programs aimed at keeping the released offenders from returning to lives of crime.
In theory, every jail ought to be worried about what the experts call recidivism, folks committing new crimes and returning to jail at high rates soon after their release dates. In practice, few parish jails, although with exceptions like former Lafayette Parish Mike Neustrom, took ownership of the issue.
While no social program is perfect, the state Department of Corrections — working with nonprofit organizations and other agencies — is pursuing an agenda to reduce recidivism. It is education and drug treatment, job training programs and the like.
One of the instructors is a former offender, Chris Kendrick of New Orleans. Below the tall prison pylons, he shows students how to work power tools. A builder by trade, Kendrick regularly drives down from his home in New Orleans to teach carpentry and basic wiring skills.
''Hopefully, it'll become a cycle where they come in, get the skills and we send them straight to … get the jobs,'' he said. ''We're just really trying to help guys move forward, really change their thought process on how to get work and get money without being illegal.''
''You get some guys that haven't had a job ever in their life, and then you get guys who worked at but never got certified in these fields — working in these fields for 10 or 15 years but never got the certification,'' Kendrick said. ''And that certification plays a big difference on your résumé when you're trying to get a job.''
Is this going to work in every case? No.
But Louisiana is still trying to shed its status as an incarceration capital. Keeping released offenders from coming back is a huge step in that direction.