Louisiana Sheriff Re-Elected Despite Prisoner Death Toll
by Jayson Hawkins
Jail conditions are seldom equated to accommodations at a five-star hotel. Even so, there are lockups where the environment threatens a clear and ever-present danger to prisoners and staff alike. Such is the case at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison (EBRPP) a community jail that a 2018 Reuters report called a “ticking time bomb.”
Sixteen men have died while in custody at EBRPP during the past two years, a number that jumps to over 40 deaths since 2012.
Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, who has had responsibility for the facility since taking office in 2007, has deflected the blame to the jail’s health-care provider, the lack of space and outdated infrastructure inside the facility, and, ultimately, on the types of people incarcerated there.
“The majority of deaths that occur at EBRPP have been a result of poor health and pre-existing conditions prior to entering the prison,” Gautreaux’s office commented, adding that “a large portion of the prison population suffers from drug addiction and the effects of prolonged drug use.”
Whatever challenges the incarcerated population might face do not excuse Gautreaux’s lack of action, advocates for reform have argued. Sheriffs in Louisiana are granted extensive control over who gets locked up and how they are treated. The incarceration rate in East Baton Rouge —381 per 100,000 residents — far exceeds the national average, and almost 90 percent of those imprisoned in the parish are pretrial detainees, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime.
This suggests that there are steps Gautreaux could be taking to alleviate the overcrowding and needless deaths in his jail, but he has chosen not to adopt them.
“We should be putting violent offenders in, but instead we’re putting every offender that comes along,” said Mark Milligan, who has been Gautreaux’s primary challenger in three of the last four elections. The most recent, in October 2019, saw voters return Gautreaux to office by a landslide despite the long and growing list of prisoner deaths on his watch and the persistent abysmal conditions at EBRPP.
The sheriff’s office has claimed the death toll in EBRPP is typical of an incarcerated population, yet an investigative report by Reuters found that it has been 2.5 percent higher than the national average over the past few years. The majority of deaths inside the facility have been of individuals simply awaiting trial.
Gautreaux has acknowledged the need for a new facility.
EBRPP was built over 50 years ago, and three of its wings had to be closed due to safety concerns in 2018. Critics have charged that the sheriff has not done enough to make the public aware of how critical the situation has become, and voters have repeatedly turned down tax proposals that would fund a new facility or improve the old one.
“I wish I wasn’t even in the prison business to tell the truth,” Gautreaux admitted in a city council meeting in 2018. Unfortunately, it will take more than wishing to stop the bodies from piling up.
Sources: theappeal.com, theadvocate.com, Reuters
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