A mother whose son died of a drug overdose while he was serving time in a controversial work-release program in Covington is turning to state and federal court to pursue those she blames for his death, including St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.
Three years after 26-year-old Jonathan Doré was found dead in a Madisonville trailer, Jane LeBlanc filed suit last week in 22nd Judicial Court against Strain, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, Northshore Workforce and Baker Pile Driving, as well as another company owned by Robert Baker, accusing them of negligence.
LeBlanc is also seeking to revive a federal lawsuit that was dismissed with prejudice last year by U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey. Her lawyer, Al Robert, filed a motion to vacate on April 15, arguing that LeBlanc, who initially represented herself, lacked the legal experience to file timely opposition to the defendants’ motions to dismiss and was missing crucial files that were in the possession of another lawyer who had reviewed her case.
Her state lawsuit asserts that the defendants did not follow rules of the Department of Corrections or the work-release program, and failed to properly supervise inmates, leaving them to their own devices for longer than the 45 minute window allowed by the state before and after their off campus job assignments.
“In this environment Jonathan Doré found access to drugs and began to abuse them again while under the purported supervision of the work-release program,’’ the suit says.
The state lawsuit also faults the defendants for allowing the program to continue operating “after any other reasonable organization would have intervened to address the mismanagement of the work-release program.’’
Transitional work-release programs are designed to provide inmates nearing the end of their incarceration with an opportunity to work, gaining skills and money. Northshore Workforce ran the program under a deal that Strain awarded without seeking competitive bids and under terms that were favorable to the company. Work-release programs across the state allowed to keep 62 percent of inmates’ gross wages or $63.50 per day, whichever is less. The contract with Strain also allows Northshore Workforce to keep most of the $15.29 per diem that the state pays the parish each day to house and feed work-lease inmates, with the sheriff keeping only $3 per inmate. That’s far more lucrative than other programs around Louisiana.
Strain shut down the Northshore Workforce facility last month, following a lengthy investigative effort by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV that outlined lax oversight at the facility, including the death of Doré and another drug-related death. Strain cited three escapes in a row as the reason for the shutdown.
The work-release program is under investigation by the state Inspector General, who has sent a letter to both the Sheriff’s Office and the work-release company instructing them not to destroy any documents. James “Jimmy’’ LeBlanc, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, confirmed that he has spoken to the Inspector General as part of the probe.
Capt. George Bonnett, spokesman for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, said that the agency does not comment on specifics of pending litigation. “However, we are confident this suit will result in the same outcome as the first,’’ he said.
Baker pointed out that LeBlanc’s earlier federal suit had been thrown. “The filing of another suit in state court appears to be yet another attempt to shift blame,’’ he said. “We have no comment on the pending suit.’’
Marlin Peachey, one of the owners of Northshore Workforce, did not respond to a request for comment.
Strain has previously said that the federal court found, in LeBlanc’s first suit, that his office could not “in any stretch of the imagination be held responsible,’’ for the death of Doré and that the court also found that the provider bore no responsibility.
“The day that government, or the Sheriff’s Office, starts trying to assume responsibilities for an individual’s actions, guys, we’re all in trouble,’’ he said in an earlier interview.
But LeBlanc says her case is bolstered by new information about the work-release program that has surfaced in the last three months and wasn’t publicly known when she filed her initial federal suit.
She maintains that her son was spending long periods of time — including overnight stays — at a trailer in Madisonville that was owned by Gas Properties, a company that also belongs to Baker. Doré was not getting the food, lodging and medical care he should have received, she said, and emergency responders even had trouble finding him when he overdosed because the trailer’s address wasn’t in the 911 system.
“My son’s constitutional rights were violated,’’ she said.
Strain and Peachey have insisted that no inmates ever lived in the trailer, on 173 La. 22 E. Baker has said previously that the trailer was used as a dropping off and picking up point for work-release inmates.
Only transitional work-release inmates who work offshore can spend the night off site, according to Department of Corrections rules.
But LeBlanc isn’t alone in contending that inmates spent unsupervised time at the trailer. Former inmate James Woodside says that he and others who worked for Baker Pile Driving routinely spent nights in the trailer and were given far more freedom than other inmates.
The suit suggests a strong connection between Baker Pile Driving and Northshore Workforce, citing a letter from Baker describing the two entities as a team and pointing out that Northshore Workforce business operations were being run out of the Baker Pile Driving office on Ronald Reagan Highway in Covington.
“Whether in spite of, or because of their close working relationship, Northshore Workforce failed to hold Baker Pile Driving accountable to the work-release program requirements,’’ the suit says.
LeBlanc says the lack of supervision led to her son’s death.
Doré, who had served time in Lafourche Parish for burglary and theft, was wrestling with addiction, she says, a problem that followed him to St. Tammany Parish, where the family had moved to give him a fresh start. She sought help from his probation officer, and he was put in a 90-day turnaround program for violating the terms of his probation. After one month in jail, he was placed in the work-release program. He died on April 18, 2011, a week before his release date.
“I do hold them greatly responsible,’’ she said. “ I thought he was not going to have access to drugs ... he did not have an addiction to heroin, it was not his drug of choice until he wound up in the St. Tammany Parish system.’’
LeBlanc says that she wants justice for her son, but she also wants answers. “I don’t know what really happened, and no one seems to want to tell me,’’ she said.