Before he pleaded guilty to taking bribes and illegally spending around $150,000 of his campaign money, resulting in a 46-month federal prison sentence in 2013, former Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana Sheriff Jiff Hingle may have started his parish on a road to financial ruin. The instrument of that potential ruin is a huge new jail built in Pointe à la Hache at the southern end of the parish peninsula. The facility is near the site of the old jail that was destroyed when Hurricane Katrina came ashore nearby.
“Anybody that comes down there and looks at it says ‘why is it being built down there?’” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.
One problem with the new jail is its location, which is well outside the levee protection system. The facility was built using FEMA money with a budget that ballooned to $125 million during planning and construction. That $125 million bought a very modern jail with an 871-bed capacity – enough to lock up a sizeable portion of the parish’s population.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me that you would build an 871-bed jail in a parish with a population of 23,000,” said Katie Schwartzmann with the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, which specializes in issues related to incarceration and is involved in federal litigation over conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Plaquemines prisoners housed at the old jail were transferred to several correctional facilities before ultimately ending up at the Orleans Parish Prison. Plaquemines Parish paid $26.39 per prisoner housed in the Orleans facility until the contract expired in early 2015.
Approximately 800 prisoners had been crammed into the old, much smaller jail. Fewer than 100 were parish residents; the rest were contract prisoners from the state prison system and federal immigration authorities (ICE). This has been a common practice in Louisiana; the Department of Corrections (DOC) pays parishes $23.49 per day to house state prisoners. But the trend is toward less outsourcing by the DOC – 40,170 prisoners were held in local facilities in 2012, 39,299 in 2013 and fewer still in more recent years.
“I do know that the trend in the state is to move away from the use of parish jails,” Schwartzmann said. “So, if you have a population of 100 at best and you have 871 beds to fill, you have a problem.”
Plaquemines Parish council members estimated the cost of staffing, maintaining and insuring the new jail at thousands of dollars a month; preliminary estimates suggested the facility will cost around $3 million to operate annually, which doesn’t include construction costs.
“If we don’t get the DOC inmates and the federal ICE inmates, the sheriff is looking at real problems with the prison,” Councilman Byron Marinovich remarked. “I don’t know what the answer is if we don’t get the federal or state inmates in here. We’ve even talked about blocking off sections of the jail.”
When the new Plaquemines Parish jail opened in February 2015 it was only at 10% capacity. As of April 2015, the population had increased somewhat but the facility remained less than a quarter full. Its remote location and lack of contract prisoners makes it doubtful the jail will be able to break-even in terms of construction and operational costs.
“I think that cash cow the prior sheriff was planning for will no longer be available,” Nungesser quipped.
At the jail opening, Sheriff Lonnie Greco, Hingle’s successor, tried to reassure the parish. “We inherited this problem,” he said. “We will work to make this work.” Greco acknowledged it would be a time-consuming process but that filling the jail was a priority for the Sheriff’s Office.
Until recently, neither the DOC nor the federal government had committed to housing any additional prisoners in Plaquemines Parish. But in a March 2, 2016 news release, Sheriff Greco announced the jail will become the new home of the Southeast Regional Reentry Program. Over 100 prisoners were transferred to the facility as part of the new DOC contract. The initiative is aimed at providing life-skills training for prisoners due to be released within the next 18 months from the Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes.
Components of the reentry program include substance abuse treatment, job search skills and assistance with job placement, anger management, money management and budgeting, values development, personal development and planning, parenting skills, victim awareness, and counseling on community resources.
“Obtaining a rehabilitation program has been a goal of the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, since our facility opened early last year.... The ultimate goal is to break the cycle by helping prevent those from committing additional crimes in our communities and keep them from returning to jail,” Sheriff Greco stated.
Another goal, of course, is to ensure there are enough prisoners housed at the jail to generate sufficient revenue to keep it operational.
Meanwhile, former Sheriff Hingle, under whose tenure the new, larger Plaquemines Parish jail was conceived, continues to experience problems of his own. On February 25, 2016, Hingle was arrested on a DWI charge; arresting officers said he was under “extreme” impairment and the former lawman admitted he had been drinking. The DWI charge came shortly after Hingle was released from federal prison. What was the underlying basis of his conviction for bribery, one of the charges that resulted in his prison sentence? He took $10,000 in bribes from the owner of a company hired to oversee construction of the new parish jail.
Sources: www.wdsu.com, www.fox8live.com, www.nola.com
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