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Work Release Programs Reduce Recidivism in Louisiana – At a Cost

The Louisiana Department of Corrections (LDOC) Transitional Work Program has been having a positive effect on reducing recidivism in Louisiana, though it has not been without its faults and criticisms. A recent audit of the program called for strengthened oversight and made other recommendations.

The LDOC Transitional Work Program consists of 38 individual work release programs, roughly two-thirds of which are operated by sheriffs. The remaining third is operated by private contractors. Prisoners enrolled in the programs work for employers within local communities during the day and sleep in secured barracks at night.

The effort saves taxpayers roughly $12 million per year by recouping a portion of the prisoners’ pay. Under LDOC policy, prisoners enrolled in Transitional Work Programs pay just over 60 percent of their wages or $63.50 per day, whichever is less, to cover lodging, food and transportation. Some sheriff’s programs charge only 50 percent.

“This program actually pays for itself,” said Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office Transition Work Program Director, Captain Demitria Parker.

In fact, the program not only pays for itself, it also generates revenue for the agencies and contractors that administer it. From 2011 to 2012, the program added $500,000 to the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office general fund.

The latest statistics indicate that only 11.1 percent of prisoners participating in Transitional Work Programs returned to prison after one year, compared to a 15.6 percent recidivism rate for those not enrolled in such programs.

“[It’s] the best program that I’ve ever seen,” said KM Foods General Manager Doug Moran. “They bring them to work, they feed them, and they pick them up ... if you get ahold of one who does not work, all you have to do is send them back.”

Many prisoners find the work program to be a better option than sitting in a cell all day.

“The stress level is tremendously less,” said Jesse McKinney, a participant in the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office Work Release Program. “Time seems to move by at a quicker rate because you’re working more, and you’re constantly moving around, you don’t have time to sit and dwell.”

Despite the positive aspects of the work release program, however, a report by the office of Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, released in April 2016, underscored several deficiencies.

One of the chief issues involved security. The audit report found that, during a recent three-year period, at least 254 escapes took place through the Transitional Work Program. As such, auditors recommended increased oversight over local and private program administrators by LDOC and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety. They also suggested the possible use of electronic monitors for prisoner workers.

Another finding was that, while the program had generated nearly $60 million in revenue (including $4.1 million made through the sale of commissary food, the balance being derived chiefly from withholdings from prisoner wages) for sheriff’s offices and contractors, 55 percent of prisoners left the program with less than $1,000 in savings.

The auditors found the average prisoner in the work release program spent $1,300 per year on commissary food; as such, they recommended a cap on prisoner commissary spending.

The audit report also found that, where rehabilitation programming is concerned, the Transitional Work Program falls short of statewide standards. LDOC facilities offer around 61 rehabilitative programs. Local jails, on average, provide seven. The auditors found the work release programs only offered three.

As noted by The Advocate at the time of the audit report’s release, the provision of rehabilitative programming may actually hurt the profit margins of the sheriff’s offices and private contractors that operate the work release programs, because prisoners who complete rehabilitative programming are often eligible for early release – and if released early, there would be fewer deductions from their wages that go to sheriff’s offices and contractors in the form of revenue.