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Plaquemines Parish Jail Grand-Opening Faces Shuttered Wasteful Cells

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the 800 plus bed Plaquemines Parish Detention Center (PPDC). Plans to house out-of-jurisdiction prisoners and corruption by the former sheriff resulted in building a state-of-the-art facility. As of October 2014, the construction of this facility--much larger that the area requires--threatened to wreck the community’s budget just to maintain empty cells.

Jeff Hingle served five terms as Plaquemines Parish Sheriff and served as the president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. Even before Katrina, he was following the trend of cashing in on contracts to house state and federal prisoners. When Katrina hit, only 127 of PPDC’s 457 prisoners belonged to the parish. PPDC still had over 300 empty beds.

“On his better days – his best year – he was almost a million dollars in the hole,” said current Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Connie Greco. “He had everybody else believing he was making money on this, and he wasn’t.”

That skewed conception allowed Hingle to move forward with the building of a 210,000-square foot, 871 bed jail with a $118 million price tag. Its technology includes biometric locks that allow guards to scan their fingerprints with a key card to open certain doors. It sits on concrete pylons that put its doors 19 feet off the ground and is surrounded by concertina razor wire fencing rated to sustain 150 mph winds.

“This jail is designed to survive a hurricane,” said PPDC Cmdr. Terry Rutherford. “It can operate three to five days on its own power.”

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungessar “begged” Hingle to build a smaller jail. “You don’t build something 10 times bigger than you need in hopes they will come,” said Nungessar. “Nobody’s going to want to house their prisoners over there with that kind of flood exposure. Imagine what it costs to evacuate that prison – not only for Plaquemines but for any other parish or federal agency that would house prisoners there.”

Of the 871 beds in the new PPDC, Greco plans to use only 100 after its November opening. Two of the jails three wings will be shuttered and maintained with climate control to prevent mold.

“I don’t like that it was built so big. Jails, at one time, were the thing to do. It’s not the thing to do anymore,” said Greco. “We’re going to run it, and we’re going to run it as frugally as we can.”

“(Greco) won’t be able to fill it with local people unless he puts everybody in the parish in jail,” quipped Councilman Percy “P. V.” Griffin. “We’re going to have to tighten our belt buckles and find ways to help the sheriff operate it.”

State prison officials and Federal Marshals have looked at the new PPDC, but there are no plans to house their prisoners there. Greco is looking into housing out-of-state prisoners but he is skeptical about out-of-jurisdiction prisoners.

“The thing is you’ve got to be very careful about what you accept,” said Greco. “You’d have to show me numbers because I’m not going to go into the hole for anybody.”

While Greco is trying to keep his new jail out of the financial hole, Hingle is serving a 46 month federal prison sentence for accepting bribes. He was convicted of taking $20,000 in bribes from Aaron Bennet, the crooked businessman whose firm contracted to manage construction of the new PPDC.

Greco learned a lesson Hingle missed. “You’ve got a bunch of sheriffs who have built these big facilities looking for that to make ends meet,” Greco said. “Jails don’t make ends meet. Jails just break even  – if you’re lucky.”


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