That has to be what officials in Plaquemines Parish were thinking when they decided to use more than $100 million in federal money to build a parish prison that remains empty and would now cost the parish hundreds of thousands of dollars a month that it doesn’t have if it ever opens.
That’s right. It hasn’t even opened, but parish officials are looking at ways shutting down portions of the facility to curtail operation costs.
It seems as if the state and federal contracts Plaquemines officials were hoping would fill the nearly 900 prison beds they have set up in Pointe la Hache, a small fishing community on the parish’s east bank, will not happen because the state Department of Corrections and federal prison system have not and probably will not contract with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office to house prisoners there.
Oh, and that is the reason it won’t be opening anytime soon.
This $100 million prison was wrong on so many levels. The prison in the middle of nowhere was built because in the state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the world prisons are BIG BUSINESS—BIG!
This prison is a shining example of what is amiss with our society. We will cut the budgets of education and healthcare, food programs for the hungry and housing programs for the poor, and then turn around and spend $100 million in federal money to build a prison like we are throwing pennies in a wishing well.
Why weren’t folks in Plaquemines giving this idea the side eye years ago? Really, who wants a 900 bed prison in their community? What a waste of tax dollars! Now don’t misunderstand us. Plaquemines Parish needs a parish jail. The one destroyed by Katrina needed to be replaced, but other buildings in Plaquemines Parish were rebuilt on a scale that fits the parish’s population and at a fraction of the cost. For instance, $7.9 million from FEMA was used to rebuild the Buras Community Center. Another $4.7 million for the Buras Public Library. There was $7.4 million for the Port Sulphur Community Center, and $4.7 million for the Buras Volunteer Fire Department. Come on now—$100 million for a nearly 900-bed prison complex in a Plaquemines Parish? With just under 24,000 residents, Plaquemines ranks 40th out of the state’s 64 parishes in population. Plaquemines has a little more than half the residents of Avoyelles Parish, which is actually home to a Louisiana State Department of Corrections prison.
There is not enough ink in the world for us to go in on the misplaced priorities of an errant nation willing to spend more money on imprisoning a child than it is on educating him. Talk about third world.
So the hope of getting the state and the feds to send some of its prisoners to the facility had to be the only reason Plaquemines officials would build a sprawling prison complex to replace the parish jail destroyed in Katrina. Otherwise, as one observer indicates, it makes no sense to build a jail that big in a parish with a population that size.
Reportedly, one reason the feds aren’t jumping to house prisoners in Plaquemines Parish is because the new, secure and gigantic prison sits outside of the levee protection system. Meanwhile, it has been reported that the state is getting out of the habit of housing its prisoners in local jails. Of course, this is a relatively recent turnaround here in Louisiana where crime pays. Really, it does. The state pays local jails a little less than $25 a day per prisoner to house state inmates. And while the numbers of state DOC prisoners outsourced to parish jails is dwindling down about 870 prisoners from 2012 for a total of just fewer than 39,300 outsourced inmates in 2013, the state’s department of corrections still has plenty of prisoners it is paying local sheriffs’ departments to keep for them.
Across the state, this money adds up for the parishes that house state prisoners. Again, in 2013, nearly 39,300 state prisoners were housed in parish jails.
Here’s the math on that 39,300 prisoners at $23.39 day for 365 days comes to more than $958,000 a day and almost $350 million a year.
For small, rural Louisiana locales, housing state prisoners is a cash cow; and they aren’t spending it on vocational programs or rehabilitation, to be sure. Instead, they use it to increase salaries and the size of their departments’ personnel. They use it to buy new equipment. And we’re betting that is what Plaquemines officials were hoping for—a few more jobs to go around at the very least. But with no contract in hand, things are looking bleak. For larger parishes (like Orleans and Terrebonne, which are number one and two in the number of state inmates housed) that money is critical to the jails’ operations. In either case, there is something wrong with having local jails dependent on housing state prisoners to balance their budgets, provide jobs and make major purchases.
Right now, Plaquemines Parish has about six dozen prisoners currently being housed in Orleans Parish. That is to say that when former Plaquemines sheriff Jiff Hingle began the charge to get this prison built, it wasn’t because of a need to house hundreds and hundreds of Plaquemines prisoners, but with the express purpose of cashing in on the long-term housing of state and federal prisoners.
Today, Hingle sits in federal prison, serving a 46 month sentence for a bribe he took related to the jail’s construction. And the prison in the middle of nowhere sits empty, for now.
We are in state that views prisons as a business, and Plaquemines Parish is in a state of confusion because of it, especially if it never fills that jail.
But don’t worry. Plaquemines Parish will eventually open its prison. With or without state and federal prisoners, the parish will have to open the facility in some form just to house its own inmates. And something tells us that they haven’t given up on convincing the state or the feds to pay them to house their prisoners. When this prison opens, be careful whenever you are in Plaquemines. Prisons are big business in America—especially in Louisiana. And if they build it, they will fill it. And we will suffer.