La. prison system continues to struggle with staff

In the last year, the prison system has seen 1,329 correction officers leaving state prisons -- a 42 percent turnover


Julia O'Donoghue
NOLA Media Group, New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s prison system is still struggling to hire and retain quality prison guards, despite implementing two pay increases last year.

“We saw some improvement with that pay raise, but we are beginning to see that it is moving in the wrong direction,” said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary for the Department of Corrections and Public Safety, at a budget hearing before the House Appropriations Committee Monday (April 15). “We can hire, but we can’t keep them. We are continually trying to get to complete staffing, but it’s impossible.”

In the last year, the prison system has seen 1,329 correction officers leaving state prisons -- a 42 percent turnover, according to figures provided by the Department of Corrections. At some prisons, the problem is worse than others. More than 590 of the 1,182 correctional officers that work at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola have left over the last year -- a 50 percent turnover rate.

“The kind of applicant we get coming through the front gate is -- is a struggle,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc later said most of the correctional officers that work at Angola, a men’s maximum-security prison, are women, which poses “a challenge” when it comes to staffing.

The Department of Corrections and Gov. John Bel Edwards has pushed hard for the Louisiana Legislature to include enough money for a correctional officer raise last year. At the time, LeBlanc said it was becoming too difficult for prisons to find people to work in their facilities.

When a prison isn’t fully staffed, the state spends more money on overtime pay. The corrections agency is projecting to spend $15 million on overtime compensation this year, LeBlanc said.

Prison officials have said one of the big struggles is low pay for staff, especially at the entry level. Before the raises last year, LeBlanc complained that entry-level pay for prison guards was so low that some correctional officers who weren’t married qualified for food stamps.

Last July, the Louisiana State Civil Service Commission approved a second round of pay raises ranging from 2 to 10 percent. The latest pay increases bumped entry-level prison guard pay from $12.70 to $13.97 per hour, according to Thomas Bickham, chief financial officer for the corrections department. Correctional officers with a higher rank or more experience also received anywhere from a 2 percent to 5 percent raise, depending on their current pay and position, he said.

“I think we are probably the lowest rung in the Southern states,” for prison guard pay, Bickham said during the hearing Monday.

In addition to hiring problems, the agency also has challenges with the staff it does employ. Forty-three correctional officers and one former medical staff member have been arrested over the last year for a range of offenses on the job -- from bringing contraband into the facilities to having inappropriate relationships with inmates.

LeBlanc said the biggest problems with contraband are drugs and cell phones. The prison system had 1,241 seizures of “illicit substances” and 2,242 cell phones. About 490 weapons were also seized over the last year, according to documents provided at the budget presentation.

LeBlanc said the prison system has ramped up efforts to screen for weapons, drugs, cell phones and other products coming into prison. It has put body scanners in all facilities and is doing random drug testing and shakedowns. Staff cannot go through the body scanners every day -- due to concerns over radiation exposure -- but they are randomly picked out for screening on a regular basis, LeBlanc said.

“Staff, as I mentioned, is part of the problem. Hopefully, if we could settle that down, that would solve a lot of our challenges,” LeBlanc said.

Inmates may not have to rely on humans to carry contraband to them anymore though. LeBlanc and Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy strongly suspect that drones are being used to drop contraband into that prison, which is 18,000 acres. Vannoy has rented a drone detector for Angola for the next six months -- he says it costs about $2,000 -- to see if he can intercept some transports.

“We’ve been seeing drones,” though they haven’t discovered one dropping contraband on the prison grounds yet, Vannoy said.

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©2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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