Corrections: Political Ploys Over Public Safety – The Story of the Lafayette Jail

   

As we continue our look at local criminal justice systems, today we are covering the second leg of our four-legged stool: corrections. Prison/Jail population is often a metric that’s used to determine whether police are adequately deterring criminal behavior. After all, if your crime prevention strategies are effective arrests and incarcerations should be lower. But, like other legs of the stool, things aren’t always that straightforward.

Corrections encapsulates a wide range of items. We all know for years Louisiana has been dubbed the incarceration capital of the world. That title is largely tied to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) or our state correctional system. But we are focused on our local correctional system. To keep this as simple as possible we are looking only at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.

If you’ve been around Lafayette for any period over the past few decades you have probably heard about the need for a new parish jail. There is no doubt the structure is old. Just like the parish courthouse, which houses the Judges’ Offices, the District Attorney, and the Clerk of Court. Not much different than Cajun Field, Blackham Coliseum, and Heymann Performing Arts Center. But one of the most peculiar things about the jail is how it operates.

When was the last time you heard a Judge say he wasn’t holding court because of the age of the courthouse? When has the District Attorney said he wasn’t prosecuting cases because he didn’t have adequate office space? Has the Clerk of Court said we can only accept five court filings today because of the design of the courthouse? NEVER! And that is where the jail situation stands apart.

Is the jail overcrowded?

Well, that depends. Everything is relative. Take for example this excerpt from The Daily Advertiser:

“Lafayette Parish population has doubled in the past four decades and is expected to double again within the next 25 years. Along with a population growth, Lafayette Parish has seen an increase in crime rate as well. The overcrowded conditions in our parish jail will become even worse as time passes.”

Do you agree with that statement? It just so happens that this was published in 1976. The ad states: “The Lafayette Parish Jail, located on the seventh floor of the parish courthouse, was built in 1968 with a capacity of 85 prisoners. The average parish jail population for the past two years has been 124…. A full 39 inmates above the actual capacity.” Remember that statement! The jail in 1976 was over capacity on average by 39 inmates for two years!

It’s fair to say that if the Lafayette Parish Jail were housing 39 inmates more on average than their capacity for two years most would agree they were “overcrowded.” But what if they were only over capacity a few days a year? Or a few weeks a year? Would you still feel the same way?

A New Jail is Built!

Eight years later, in December of 1984, the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center began operations. At that time the State of Louisiana prison system was under the jurisdiction of the Federal Courts and a Consent Decree was entered into with then Sheriff Donald Breaux. The decree mandated the capacity and inmate-to-guard ratio for the facility. The original single-cell occupancy capacity of the facility was 338 prisoners, with an expanded double-cell occupancy capacity of 676. An expansion would follow one decade later.

By 1993 a satellite facility, commonly referred to as the Annex, had been added to the jail facility adding another 96 beds to the complex. Additionally, an indoor recreation space had been retrofitted into a housing unit bringing the total bed capacity to 798. Other renovations and changes in the design of the physical structure led to a capacity of 840 by 2005.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The result was an evacuation of the Orleans Parish Prison and the absorption of 150 additional prisoners into the LPCC. A temporary emergency capacity increase was granted by the fire marshal at that time. It allowed for the housing of close to 1,200 inmates. Over the next few years, the LPCC capacity would eventually settle in at 954, with additional off-site facilities housing additional offenders, including the Public Safety Complex on Willow Street which was built in 2014.

Reducing Jail Capacity, Not Prisoner Population

In 2015, Mark Garber launched his first campaign for Sheriff. At that time the jail and prisoner population was a hot topic. The Sheriff at the time, Michael Neustrom, was housing between 1,162 to 1,490 prisoners. He managed the prisoner population through a variety of alternative incarceration programs aimed at freeing up jail space. This was achieved by transitioning non-violent offenders to community-based correctional programs.

In 2009 Neustrom embarked on taking the future of the correctional system of Lafayette Parish into his own hands. That’s when he purchased a 29-acre parcel of land to develop several correctional buildings. The site was intended to “provide correctional services for the next 100 years.” Careful measures were taken to avoid calling the site a “jail” to avoid pushback from residents in the area.

During his initial campaign for Sheriff, Garber avoided determining whether the jail was “overcrowded” but did indicate that the diversion programs did work. Despite this, when Garber took office, he phased out or cut back many diversionary programs while also reducing the actual capacity of the jail.

The actual numbers

There are reports from both the Neustrom and Garber administrations that paint a picture of the jail capacity and daily average number of offenders housed for various years.

According to data provided by Garber in December of 2023 the jail count had not exceeded 638 prisoners between January and September of 2023. During that same period the average daily population was 602, over two hundred prisoners less than the 2017 average reported by Garber and the lowest it had been since 2005. On average approximately 70 of those prisoners are state prisoners with additional prisoners being housed for the United States Marshals Service. Each day these prisoners remain in the parish jail they are occupying beds needed for housing arrestees. For the most part, they are being retained for profit.

Meanwhile, memorandums are circulated daily within law enforcement agencies advising them that they can only arrest two or five bad guys today. This is all occurring while Garber artificially and arbitrarily reduces the capacity of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. These policies ultimately sacrifice public safety, fueling increasing crime rates in the community and exposing civilians to unnecessary harm! All aimed at getting a new jail?

When Everyone is Responsible, No One is Accountable

While Lafayette City-Parish Consolidated Government owns and is responsible for the physical maintenance of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center the Sheriff is in charge of its operations. But the Sheriff of Lafayette, rather the Lafayette Parish Law Enforcement District, does own two other jails – the Annex and the Public Safety Complex, both mentioned previously. Further, the previous Sheriff also housed prisoners at the compound located at 410 Vermilion Street. However, the current Sheriff doesn’t appear to be utilizing those facilities to address the alleged “overcrowding” at LPCC.

Garber isn’t the first Sheriff to experience crowded conditions in the parish jail either. Carlo Listi, when he was elected in 1968, began his career as Sheriff with a new jail. By the time of his departure from office that jail had been operating over capacity for several years. Likewise, Don Breaux inherited a new jail when he took office in 1984. Within a decade he endeavored to build his own facility to house more prisoners. Neustrom managed the facilities inherited from Breaux and LCG for a decade and a half. During that time Neustrom started a productive conversation about the jail and correctional system as a whole and initiated the building of his own correctional center. All while providing a level of transparency that has been abandoned by his successor.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio had similar challenges

In other states, we’ve seen actions by individuals like Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was once referred to as the “toughest Sheriff in the nation,’ Sheriff Joe faced crowded conditions in the multiple facilities he oversaw, but instead of refusing to book prisoners, he created a tent city that allowed him to adequately house them.

If there is a lesson to learn over the last half a century it is that we can expect a need for additional jail space around every ten years. So when we talk about building a new jail, one that will last our parish for the next fifty years, it will be a very sizable and costly endeavor. Shouldn’t we instead be talking about supplementing our existing facilities through a series of scalable facilities? That buys us some time while exploring other alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. After all, it could all change on the whim and whining of yet another elected Sheriff.

State of Emergency

If Lafayette is experiencing a state of emergency due to jail overcrowding no one knows it. The interesting thing about jail capacity is that the law contemplates that at some point, jails will exceed their capacity for days and weeks at a time. Remember when we were talking about the jail back in 1976 being over capacity by an average of 39 prisoners for over two years? Being overcapacity by itself doesn’t prevent a Sheriff from booking people into jail, nor does it make the operations unconstitutional. In fact, the law spells out what a Sheriff is to do in such situations.

     Louisiana Revised Statue 15:764 provides:

If the prisoner population of a parish jail exceeds the rated design capacity of the parish jail for seven consecutive days, the sheriff of that parish shall certify that fact in writing, by first class mail or personal delivery, to each district, municipal and traffic court judge in the parish, to the district attorney and the chief of police of any municipality within the parish, and to the senior official of the parish governing authority.  If this condition exists for seven consecutive days after notification of said officials, the sheriff shall declare a parish jail overcrowding state of emergency and shall notify such officials.

So, the law contemplates a parish jail exceeding its capacity from time to time and when that occurs for seven consecutive days, the sheriff has a duty to certify that fact in writing and notify other stakeholders in the criminal justice community. Why? Because each of these stakeholders has things they can do to assist in managing the jail population which are outside the control of the Sheriff. But Sheriff Garber has not declared a state of emergency for the Lafayette Jail. Instead, he has singlehandedly manipulated the capacity, refused to book prisoners, and/or made it inconvenient for arresting agencies to book prisoners. He has also cut back on alternative incarceration programs, all of which have likely contributed to the rising crime rates in our community.

Transparency wins the day

There aren’t many people who would argue against building a new jail based on a variety of arguments. It’s not much different than building a new courthouse or performing arts center. But when this level of deception and manipulation plays into the equation, people simply don’t trust and support the process. That leaves the jail issue something to be kicked further down the road, while the law-abiding citizens suffer from the failed policies of our political leaders. It appears the corrections leg of our stool has been wobbly for quite some time and the Chief Law Enforcement Officer in the Parish thinks beating you with a hammer will somehow fix it.

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