Amid budget cuts, La. keeps prison costs down in ways other states don't
The state is the first to convert its private prisons into jails to deal with state budget cuts
By Julia O'Donoghue
NOLA Media Group
BATON ROUGE, La. — When it comes to prisons, Louisiana is first in many ways.
The state has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with about one in 75 Louisiana adults in prison or jail at any given moment. Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly called Angola, is the largest maximum security prison in the country.
But Louisiana is also the first to convert its two private prisons into jails — yanking educational and medical services from thousands of state inmates — to deal with state budget cuts.
No other state has made a similar move, essentially using an administrative maneuver that allows the state to work around prison regulations and run a facility more cheaply.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to devote some of his energy over the next year working to overhaul Louisiana's criminal justice system. During his campaign for governor last fall, Edwards said he would look to reduce Louisiana's incarcerated population by 5,500 people, about a 14 percent cut, if elected.
Edwards has bipartisan support for prison changes. In the state Legislature, the black caucus, made up of Democrats, and conservative Christians, who are mostly Republicans, have both made reducing the state's high incarceration rate a priority.
But it's going to be difficult to make progress if the state continues to push more inmates out of prisons and into jails, where programs meant to help people build a better life post-lockup are scant.
The governor and the Legislature's recent budget decisions are leaving about 2,800 inmates with fewer rehabilitation services and educational resources than they had three months ago.
The federal government's move away from private prisons comes after an audit showed private facilities had more safety problems than their government-run counterparts.
A reduction in education programs and medical care
Louisiana's Department of Corrections budget went up from $509 million in the last budget cycle to $518 million in the current year.
The exception was compensation for the state's two private prisons. Edwards and the Legislature cut those payments from $31.51 per inmate per day to $24.39 per inmate per day. For LaSalle Corrections, the private operators that run Winn, that was a loss of $330,000 per month to run the facility, according to Billy McConnell, the company's managing director.
The loss of funding prompted the conversion of the facilities to jails since Winn and Allen could no longer afford to keep programs and services required of prisons.
Interviews and a review of contracts show that most educational programs and medical services were eliminated from the facilities Aug. 1. About 100 staff positions were also cut from each facility.
"I mean the state's broke right now," McConnell said in an interview last week.
The GEO Group that runs Allen Correctional Center declined to answer specific questions about the budget cuts. The state government also hasn't released the newest version of Winn Correctional Center contract, making it difficult to know the specifics about what was cut at that location.
But McConnell said LaSalle eliminated Winn's auto-body shop and culinary educational programs on Aug. 1. The facility retained its GED program — which helps inmates earn their high school diplomas -- for now.
McConnell is working with the Department of Corrections to find alternative funding to bring back the auto-body shop and culinary training. LeBlanc said federal Pell Grants that are typically given to low-income people pursuing higher education might help get the prison programs back up and running.
But Winn and Allen have also significantly reduced their medical services. Both facilities used to have a 12-bed infirmary with a full-time doctor. A psychiatrist and psychologist were also at the prison at least eight hours per week.
Now, both infirmaries are empty and neither facility has a full-time doctor or required visits from a psychiatrist. A review of the facilities' contracts shows that the required medical staff has been cut in half — from about 25 positions to 12 in each location. Substance abuse counseling may no longer be offered.
Winn and Allen are now required to have only one physician on their campuses about 20 hours per week to serve more than 1,400 prisoners who have no other access to a doctor. McConnell said LaSalle has hired a full-time nurse practitioner to try to bridge the medical services gap at Winn.
The state has also moved Winn and Allen inmates that are considered "high need." Those with chronic medical conditions, psychological problems or disciplinary issues were supposed to be transferred from the private facilities to public prisons.
While this may help Winn and Allen, it will put more stress on Louisiana's state-run prisons, which will now have a higher percentage of high-need, potentially dangerous inmates.
And even though the inmates might be healthier, a much smaller medical staff is having to meet the needs of almost the same size population at Allen and Winn that it did before the budget cuts. Before their conversions to jails, Allen and Winn were allowed to hold a maximum of 1,576 inmates each. Now, they can have as many as 1,440 inmates.
Some experts in prison health care were very skeptical of having just one part-time doctor attend to such a large population.
"That seems absurd to me," Josiah Rich, from The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University, said in an interview.
Rich said the state of Rhode Island has a half-dozen physicians and some other contract doctors to care for about 3,000 prisoners, almost as many Winn and Allen combined. And even seemingly healthy prisoners are likely to have psychological problems that need to be addressed.
Private prisons also don't have a particularly good reputation for medical care. Poor health services are part of the reason the federal government is phasing out its use of private prisons. And among those the federal government is cutting ties with is The Geo Group, which runs the Allen Correctional Center.
But the state's decision to convert its private prisons into jails is an extension of an existing policy that Louisiana has used for years to save money. Since 1977, the state corrections agency has been housing many of its inmates in local jails in addition to state prisons, where expensive services don't have to be provided.
A new report says care varies widely between Louisiana's jails and prisons.
Relying on jails more than anywhere else
Louisiana and California are the only states that put their inmates in local jails. Nationally, about 5 percent of state inmates are housed in local jails. But in Louisiana, more 50 percent of state inmates are in local lockups, where the prisoners have far fewer services.
Louisiana started housing state prisoners in jails in the 1970s in order to deal with crowding at state prisons. Now, LeBlanc admits the state houses so many prisoners in local jails mostly because it saves the system money. There were more than 18,500 state inmates in local jails last year, compared to 16,500 inmates in state prisons.
Sheriffs don't have to offer the same services at jails as state prisons do, so they can keep state prisoners for less money. Like the two private facilities, sheriffs get paid $24.39 per inmate per day to keep state prisoners. It costs Louisiana $55 per inmate per day to keep someone at Angola.
The number of state inmates in local jails surpassed the number of inmates in state prisons back in 2012, when Louisiana's budget problems started to squeeze state services. The arrangement could also be why Louisiana spends less on average per inmate per day than any other state in the South.
Southern states spent about $58.24 on each prisoner per day in 2015, while Louisiana spent $38.22, according to a report from the Louisiana legislative fiscal office.
LeBlanc has referred to this arrangement as "lock and feed," where inmates are given little besides food and a place to sleep. Local jails are designed to hold people over a relatively short term. It's hit or miss over whether they have educational programs, drug counseling and other services that might benefit people serving longer-term sentences and equip them to stay out of trouble when they are released.
Some of the larger jails, in East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes for example, have programs for the inmates. Others have little overall. This may explain why the recidivism rate — the rate at which an inmate commits crimes again once they are released — is higher for state inmates housed in local jails, than for those in state prisons.
Unrest after prison services are cut
Inmates also appear to be frustrated in at least one private prison-turned-jail because services and classes that used to be available no longer exist.
The Department of Corrections sent staff to review the environment at Allen Correctional Center last week after the KPLC television station in Lake Charles reported unrest among inmates and safety concerns from staff earlier this month.
According to KPLC, inmates are telling family members through telephone calls and letters that the correctional facility has gotten more violent. Allen staff members also complained about the violence.
LeBlanc said the television reports of violence were overblown, but he did admit the facility had been experiencing problems since it was converted to a jail at the end of July.
"They aren't real happy," LeBlanc said of the inmates at Allen. "We're having to settle that down."
When the Winn and Allen budgets were cut by the Legislature in June, LeBlanc considered closing the private facilities and transferring inmates to local jails around the state. But when both private partners agreed to operate the campuses as jails — instead of prisons — he decided to give the new arrangements a try, he said in an interview.
That doesn't mean he thinks the situation is ideal. LeBlanc said he will be advocating in the spring for the Legislature to restore both Winn and Allen's funding to its previous levels. If that happens, both facilities would become prisons again, meaning the medical staff and education programs would be restored.