Prison — Louisiana
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
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NEW ORLEANS CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY
ELIZABETH B. CARPENTER – Louisiana Parole Attorney
Credit for Prior Custody — Limitations — La C.Cr.P. Article 880
A. A defendant shall receive credit toward service of his sentence for time spent in actual custody prior to the imposition of sentence.
B. A defendant shall receive credit only for time in actual custody and only once during any calendar month when consecutive sentences are imposed.
C. No defendant shall receive credit for any time served prior to the commission of the crime.
D. A defendant shall not receive credit for time served under home incarceration.
E. A defendant shall not receive overlapping jail credit, except in the instance of concurrent sentences and then only for time spent in jail on the instant felony.
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY NEW ORLEANS
ELIZABETH B. CARPENTER — Louisiana Parole Attorney
Supervision upon release after diminution of sentence for good behavior — La R.S. 15:571.5
A. When a prisoner committed to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections is released because of diminution of sentence, he shall be released as if released on parole.
B.(1) Before any prisoner is released on parole upon diminution of sentence, he shall be issued a certificate of parole that enumerates the conditions of parole. These conditions shall be explained to the prisoner and the prisoner shall agree in writing to such conditions prior to his release on parole.
(2) The person released because of diminution of sentence shall be supervised in the same manner and to the same extent as if he were released on parole. The supervision shall be for the remainder of the original full term of sentence. If a person released because of diminution of sentence pursuant to this Part violates a condition imposed by the parole board, the board shall proceed in the same manner as it would to revoke parole to determine if the release upon diminution of sentence should be revoked.
C. If such person’s parole is revoked by the parole board for violation of the terms of parole, the person shall be recommitted to the department for the remainder of the original full term, subject to credit for time served for good behavior while on parole.
If you have a loved one who is eligible for parole, contact Elizabeth B. Carpenter, LLC for a consultation. We are ready to advocate for your loved one.
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
How Louisiana Became The World’s ‘Prison Capital’
June 5, 2012 - TERRY GROSS of Freshair, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Our guest, investigative reporter Cindy Chang, writes that Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. The state imprisons more of its people per capita than any state in the nation and any country on Earth. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s and 13 times China’s.
In a series in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Chang and her colleagues report that the state’s high prison population is no accident. An approach which began as an effort to cope with prison overcrowding has led to a system where more than half of the state’s inmates are housed in for-profit facilities with financial incentives for local sheriffs to keep prisons full. The state’s prison sentences are among the harshest in the country, Chang writes, and both private prison operators and the Louisiana Sheriffs Association lobby the legislature to keep it that way.
The series also finds that the state’s meager spending on inmates leaves many inmates with few educational (technical difficulties) as they serve their time.
Cindy Chang is a special projects writer for The Times-Picayune. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Cindy Chang, welcome to FRESH AIR. And Louisiana, as you described it, the prison system is different from a lot of places. A lot of places, state inmates, those who get longer sentences, are in big state-run institutions, you know, kind of often far from the homes of prisoners. What’s different about Louisiana?
CINDY CHANG: The big thing is that in Louisiana over half of state inmates are housed in local prisons, which are usually run by sheriffs. And what we tend to think of as county jails are for people who are awaiting trial and just can’t make bail or weren’t allowed to have bail so they’re just waiting for their court date. But in Louisiana, the system has grown so that sheriffs house a lot of inmates who are serving state sentences. And the reason the sheriffs are willing to do that is because they get money in return for doing that.
DAVIES: So they’re kind of these prison entrepreneurs in a way?
CHANG: Exactly. And how that came about was in the ’90s there was an overcrowding problem and the Department of Corrections decided to solve that problem by offering incentives for sheriffs to build their own prisons.
DAVIES: So you had county sheriffs who are – are they elected? We call them parishes.
CHANG: Right. They’re elected.
DAVIES: So they’re elected sheriffs in their county or parish, as it’s called in Louisiana, right?
DAVIES: And so they looked around and said, hey, I can start a prison. I can get – what is it, like about 25 bucks a day they get from the state?
CHANG: Right, per inmate.
DAVIES: And so then there is an incentive once they build the prison to keep it full. Is that right?
DAVIES: And how do they keep it full?
CHANG: Well, it’s very much under the radar and not regulated. Once somebody gets sentenced, say, in New Orleans, if they have a sentence of 10 years or more, they’ll probably end up in a state prison. And everyone who has ever been through the system would much rather be in a state prison than a local sheriff run prison because the state prisons have lots of programs. You can learn a trade like welding or plumbing. If you’re not taking classes, you have a job. You know, if you’re serving time, you’d rather at least a busy every day and trying to improve yourself.
But what happens if you have a sentence of less than 10 years is that your sheriff will likely send you to another sheriff, which tends to be in a rural area, because that’s where this prison industry is really centered. And we spent a lot of time in Richland Parish in Northeast Louisiana. What the warden of the prison there does almost every day is, he calls his buddies in Jefferson Parish, which is a suburb of New Orleans, say, and says, hey, do you have a few to send over?
DAVIES: So it’s like hotels selling their extra beds on Priceline or something.
CHANG: It really is exactly like a hotel. The sheriffs have invested in building these prisons often with the help of private investors. And once you build a prison or hotel, how do you keep it running? You have to keep the beds full. So that’s a real – instead of the downward pressure on the incarceration rate, which a lot of states are feeling now with budget pressures, Louisiana has an upward pressure because they’ve got to keep the beds full.
DAVIES: OK. So we have a local sheriff who’s built a prison. He has fixed costs of maintaining the place and keeping the lights on, so he gets the revenue by keeping it full and getting the 25 bucks or so per day per prisoner that the state sends, right?
DAVIES: Does the sheriff in effect earn a profit if the beds are filled and he gets – more than covers his costs?
CHANG: That’s the whole idea. That’s how they were encouraged to go into this business in the first place. You’re talking about rural parishes that before this were so underfunded that they were buying used patrol cars from Oklahoma, they were driving around in these cars with 200,000 miles on them, they were sharing bulletproof vests. So any margin that they can skim off – and let me be clear, it’s not going back into the sheriff’s own pocket to buy him a mansion or anything. This is going back into his own department to buy often just real basic equipment for his deputies.
DAVIES: Right. But there is then a budgetary incentive for them to keep the prison full and create a surplus, which they can then use to better equip their staff, hire more people, provide better services.
CHANG: Right. Right. For sure.
DAVIES: Now, do the sheriffs run the prisons themselves or – I mean there are companies now, private prison companies, that will build and operate a prison for you. Do they do that?
CHANG: Right. Right. It’s a mixture. Some of the sheriffs run their own prisons, others have partnered with private companies. There’s two main companies. One is called LaSalle Corrections and one is called LCS, and they’re both actually homegrown. They’re not those national empires like CCA that most people have heard of. And there’s a variety of arrangements. Like we went to Jackson Parish, which there prison is operated by LaSalle, and what the sheriff there does is he gets a guaranteed $100,000 a year, no matter whether the prison is making a profit or not, he just gets that money. But what he really gets – and he was not shy about using this word – what he really gets is the patronage, because his department prior to this had maybe 50 employees and now it has like 150. So it’s three times as large. And in a place like that, 100 jobs with benefits is huge. And what he means by patronage, of course, is that he’ll get reelected if he keeps on supporting these jobs.
DAVIES: Uh-huh. So the sheriff then contracts with private prison operator, they put up the money and build it, but then the sheriff gets to decide who gets hired, right?
DAVIES: And jobs are a real currency when it comes to politics.
CHANG: That’s right.
DAVIES: Now, you said a moment ago that in their efforts to keep their prison beds full they sometimes – they call each other. Let’s just cover that in a little more detail. How did these sheriffs go about finding inmates? If they’ve got 10 or 15 beds available for the next month, where do they find more prisoners?
CHANG: Well, often it’s the warden, not the sheriff, who actually does this grunt work. But, for example, we visited Tensaw Parish, which is also in Northeast Louisiana. And the warden there, he pulled out a sheet of paper and it looked like it had been thumbed over any number of times. It was all wrinkled and everything and it was a list of all of the other sheriffs in the state. And naturally an urban area, like New Orleans or Baton Rouge is going to unfortunately produce more criminals. And even though in New Orleans our sheriff houses a good number of state inmates himself, he doesn’t have room for everyone who’s getting sentenced in New Orleans Parish. So the warden in Tensaw Parish knows that there are certain places, like Baton Rouge, that he can call and might have a surplus that day to send him.
CHANG: And there’s also trade between sheriffs on any given day. And I’ve talked to a lot of inmates who have been transferred multiple times and they don’t know why. It’s not necessarily because they were a troublemaker or they didn’t get along with people. Sometimes it’s just even between the rural sheriffs trading. And it can be that one sheriff needs a skilled mechanic and the other sheriff maybe ended up with two, so…
DAVIES: So they’re like commodities.
DAVIES: Now the conditions in the local jails run by these sheriffs where they have this incentive to keep them full for their own budgets, how did those conditions differ from the big state institutions?
CHANG: The term that’s often used as a warehousing. And if you’ve ever visited one of these places I think it’s an apt term. And I called pretty much every sheriff has this type of industry going, a lot of them didn’t respond. These prisons are not like what you think of with cells and maybe one or two people per cell. They’re usually dormitories and typically about 80 men or women, whatever the case may be, sleeping in a large room in bunk beds.
And the difference is that in the sheriff’s prison you go in there and people are just lounging around that dorm. They’re lying in bed in the middle of the day or watching soap operas. They will literally sit there, day after day, year after year until their sentence is over. While in a state prison, which is where most states house almost all of their inmates, you’re busy whether you like it or not. You have a job or you take classes, or you’re learning a trade, like welding or plumbing that will help you get a job when you get out.
DAVIES: And the fundamental issue here is that a system has been set up – and this was done in the 1990s when there was an overcrowding problem – a system was set up in which local sheriffs were encouraged to build or get these prisons built on the notion that they could take care of them for 20, a little under 25 bucks a day, and it seems like as long as you do that there simply isn’t going to be the money to really rehabilitate people and give them skills, is there?
CHANG: Right. So now we’ve gotten this situation where we have the highest incarceration rate in the country, so we have lots of prisoners but they’re being housed real cheaply so it’s kind of a vicious cycle: how do you reduce? If you can reduce the prison population then hopefully you’ll have more money left over to give the ones who are in the system more help.
DAVIES: And the fact is that the financial incentives for local sheriffs is not to reduce the prison population, but to keep it high.
CHANG: Absolutely. And the Sheriffs Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state and they have consistently opposed any sort of change that would reduce the prison population. Although, this year in the legislature there was a slight shift. I think that the budget problems, as in other states, have gotten so bad that there is pressure on the sheriffs and the district attorneys – who also traditionally oppose these things – to, at least, stand down on some of these cost-saving measures.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Cindy Chang. She just completed a series on prisons in Louisiana for The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, We’re speaking with Cindy Chang. She is an investigative reporter for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, where she has just completed a series on prisons and the prison system in Louisiana.
Do you know what the prison’s budget in Louisiana is and how it compares with other places?
CHANG: It’s about $600 million or so. And the comparisons are difficult because, as I said, the $24.39 is incarceration on the cheap. In Louisiana State prisons, they spent $55 an inmate, so the average in Louisiana comes out to about $38 per day per inmate, which is the lowest in the country. So if you look at the budget – the size of the budget, it’s a little misleading because we’re able to incarcerate many more people – I mean often two people to every one person in another state, because we spend so little on them.
DAVIES: One of the interesting things about this is that, you know, I think Louisiana has for years had a reputation of a state with a lot of corruption, particularly rural corruption. What’s interesting about the system as you describe it is that it came out of the problem in the 1990s where there was overcrowding, and it was the kind of solution, which at the time, you know, a lot of political scientists were embracing, you know, reinventing government, thinking outside the box, creating a different set of incentives, embracing the innovation of private enterprise. And they’ve set up something, which just has a lot of perverse effects.
CHANG: Right. I think at the time it may have seemed like a reasonable ad hoc solution. You didn’t have money to build another state prison and you’re sitting there as the head of the Department of Corrections. You can’t make the legislature reduce sentences or devise alternative programs to reduce the population. I mean, the prisoners just keep coming into the system so what are you going to do?
And Richard Stalder who was the head of the Department of Corrections at the time, he actually is a trained economist. So he very consciously said, well, what can I do to get the sheriffs to want to house these inmates instead of complaining about it? And of course the solution was money.
DAVIES: How do criminal sentences in Louisiana compare with other states?
CHANG: They’re pretty harsh. In Louisiana, right now, all life sentences are without parole. Louisiana leads the country in the percentage of its inmates who are serving life without parole. That means that you never get before a parole board and say, hey, I’ve changed. Give me another chance.
So at Angola, which is where most of these people go, they have so many older inmates who are really on their deathbed who are costing the state so much money but there’s very few mechanisms to release them. And on the lower end too, sentences are pretty harsh.
For example, recently in St. Tammany Parish which is a suburb of New Orleans, there was a guy who got 24 years without parole for a car burglary. It was his – actually third offense, although he was prosecuted as a second offender, but we have pretty strict habitual offender law here as well.
DAVIES: You can get 10 to 20 years for writing bad checks?
CHANG: And people regularly do. I mean, yeah. They’ll give five or 10 years for something like that. And it’s usually not their first offense, but you rarely see something like that in another state.
DAVIES: So what does the sentencing system do in terms of the mix of violent and non-violent offenders in these county jails?
CHANG: Well, Louisiana has a much higher percentage of non-violent offenders in its prison population than the national average. And we have plenty of violent crime in this state. New Orleans leads the nation in murders. So that implies that our sentencing structure is putting more non-violent – particularly drug offenders – in the system, and those are the very offenders that tend to end up in the for-profit sheriff’s prisons.
DAVIES: Now, there’s clearly a public appetite for harsh sentences. I mean, people are angry about crime. But you also have people – prison operators and local sheriffs – who seem to have a financial incentive for keeping the prison population high. Is there any evidence that either the prison operators or the sheriffs themselves play a role in keeping sentences harsh?
CHANG: Sure. I mean, on the level of political donations the two big private prison companies – which are LaSalle and LCS – are pretty big donors to sheriffs, to the governor, to state legislators. And as I mentioned before, the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, as well as the District Attorney’s Association, are very powerful lobbies.
DAVIES: Did you talk to any sheriffs who look at the system and say this isn’t exactly what we ought to be doing?
CHANG: I think a lot of them are conscious of some of the moral issues that are raised. And we spent a lot of time in Richland Parish in northeast Louisiana and the sheriff there, he will tell anybody who asks him about the prison: we hate to make money off of the backs of unfortunate people but the fact is it’s been good for the parish.
You know, there are those jobs with benefits. The department has better equipment. He’s about to retire but he’s been in the department for, what, 30, 40 years? I mean, he was telling me about the old days when they used to share a bulletproof vests, when they used to drive these old clunky cars. And you’ve got to cover a lot of miles when you’re patrolling a rural parish.
DAVIES: Well, Cindy Chang, I hope you do get to continue this kind of work, and I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHANG: Thank you.
GROSS: Cindy Chang spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She’s a special projects writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. You’ll find links to the paper’s series “Louisiana Incarcerated” on our website freshair.npr.org.
Copyright © 2012 National Public Radio®.
Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
No Way Out: Hundreds of Pardon Applications
Gather Dust on the Governor’s Desk
BATON ROUGE — Shelby Arabie is a killer. That is not in dispute. Twenty-seven years ago, he fired the gun that killed Benny Posey after a high-speed chase that sprang from a botched marijuana deal. Arabie is also, in the opinion of Warden Burl Cain and many others, perhaps the most rehabilitated man in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola – a model inmate who has turned his life around, learned a trade and prepared himself about as well as one can for life as a free man.
But ever since the five-member Louisiana Pardon Board voted unanimously last August to make Arabie eligible for parole, he joined a growing subset in Louisiana’s criminal justice system.
Arabie is now among several hundred felons — the vast majority of whom have already served their time and been released — whose pardon recommendations are waiting on the desk of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Since January 2008, the Pardon Board has sent 450 pardon recommendations to Jindal. As of early May, he had signed 36 and rejected 36, leaving the rest in limbo. Only one of Jindal’s pardons has gone to a person still behind bars.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, by contrast, signed 285 of the 331 pardon recommendations that reached her desk during her four-year term. Of Blanco’s 285 pardons, 87 went to prisoners, either shortening their terms or setting them immediately free. Blanco’s predecessor, Republican Mike Foster, signed 460 pardons during his eight years in office, with the vast majority coming in his second term when he was a lame duck.
Jindal, in an October interview, said he reviews each pardon request that reaches him, stressing that the Pardon Board’s recommendation is just that: a recommendation.
“Our philosophy is that nobody that comes before the board or comes to the governor’s office is automatically entitled to a pardon,” Jindal said. “We think the law purposely sets up a multistep process to allow for careful deliberation.”
Some longtime observers and critics of the pardon process say it is largely broken, a casualty of political pressures and public attitudes toward the incarcerated. Some wonder what the Pardon Board and its members’ $36,000 annual salaries are good for if the governor so rarely takes its recommendations.
Joe Raspanti, a Metairie lawyer who has represented dozens of pardon seekers through the years, said Jindal’s reluctance to grant relief is discouraging.
“I’ve become more selective in taking the cases, because I don’t know that I can give people what they’re expecting,” Raspanti said. “A lot of these people, I know they can’t get help and it’s sad.”
Pardons have little effect on the incarceration rate, since they are meant for extraordinary cases. Even if Jindal signed more pardons, Louisiana would still lock up a higher percentage of its citizens than any other state. But pardons provide an important safety valve as well as a ray of hope.
In a state with unusually tough sentencing laws, pardons are the only way out for some prisoners. All Louisiana life sentences are handed down without parole, and Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its inmates serving life without parole.
The state Parole Board, which deals with a much higher volume of cases — about 2,000 a year — has also become stingier. Pardons are executive acts of clemency, while paroles are early releases routinely granted to inmates who have met certain criteria and are judged to pose little risk to society. Paroles do not require the governor’s signature. Since 2003, the percentage of applicants granted parole has decreased from about 60 percent to 30 percent.
In Louisiana’s system of justice, the avenues for mercy have become increasingly narrow.
Rules Have Changed
The pardon system in Louisiana had undergone big changes long before Jindal took office in 2008.
A generation ago, many applications came from prisoners and the method for winning freedom was widely viewed as corrupt. In the 1970s and ’80s, felons who had the means to hire law firms with close connections to the governor’s office stood a good chance of gaining the “gold seal” of clemency, according to Burk Foster, a retired professor of criminal justice who wrote a 1985 article on the subject.
A 1979 investigation by The Times-Picayune found that the law firm of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards’ executive counsel had handled more cases before the board than any other and enjoyed a success rate far above other firms.
These days the rules have changed, and it has become tougher for incarcerated criminals to even win a hearing before the board. The bar for winning a pardon recommendation has been raised, from a majority vote to a supermajority.
Meanwhile, appointments to the Pardon Board, which come with a $36,000 annual salary for less than one week per month of actual work, remain sought-after political plums. The chairman makes $42,000.
“It’s a highly political deal,” said Larry Clark, an Alexandria florist who has served continuously on the Pardon Board since being appointed in 1992 by Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Clark and his fellow board members may soon be facing an increased workload. A proposal to merge the Pardon Board with the Parole Board was endorsed by the state Sentencing Commission and is on the verge of passing the Legislature. Pardon members would retain their current salaries and duties while also taking on the work now done by the Parole Board.
Today, much of the Pardon Board’s time is spent reviewing applicants who have already served their sentences and are hoping to have their records scrubbed clean so they can pass a security clearance or get a better job.
Clark said the change is largely because of the public’s attitude that tough punishment is the best way to attack crime and the growing influence of victims’ rights groups.
“Over time, the victims groups have played a very important role in presenting their case … which has affected the votes of all the board members,” Clark said. “If it’s a bad case, why stir everyone up?”
Meanwhile, the wave of new security precautions approved by state and federal authorities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made it tougher to find employment in many fields for people with a felony on their record.
“The terrorism deal forced a lot of people to try to come back to get a pardon and get that off their record,” Clark said.
Of the 36 pardons Jindal has granted, just one went to someone who was actually in prison. Wesley Dick, pardoned in 2009, was among a dwindling number of felons serving a life sentence at Angola for heroin offenses under a law that has since been repealed.
About a dozen heroin lifers, all from the New Orleans area, have received thumbs-ups from the Pardon Board but remain behind bars, awaiting the governor’s signature.
Joseph Sandoval is one of those inmates serving life without parole on a heroin charge. Now 34 and in his 11th year at Angola, Sandoval will soon graduate from the prison’s Bible college.
Ed McIntyre, a relative and owner of the Mr. Ed’s chain of restaurants in Jefferson Parish, told the Pardon Board in 2009 that Sandoval has a job waiting for him if he is ever released. The board gave Sandoval a positive recommendation, but his application is languishing on Jindal’s desk along with many others.
Trying to Clean up Records
Dana Jackson, 34, is also a model inmate at Angola, an auto-mechanics instructor and a mentor to young offenders in the re-entry program. He was sentenced to life without parole for heroin distribution in 1999, at age 21. On Oct. 20, 2009, the Pardon Board recommended that Jackson’s life sentence be commuted, along with Sandoval’s and that of another Jefferson Parish heroin lifer, Lakyia Skinner. All three men are still waiting.
Blanco, Jindal’s predecessor, commuted the life sentences of 30 heroin offenders, making them eventually eligible for parole. Nine of those pardons came in 2006, before she announced she would not seek re-election.
“He’s busy being a candidate, traveling a lot, visiting Washington, D.C.,” said Sandoval’s mother, Lucy Sandoval, of Jindal. “He needs to have mercy on these kids, these young men, and give them a chance to be with their families. He needs to put rapists and criminals over there, not kids with an addiction.”
On the humid August morning when Arabie asked for his freedom, the Pardon Board docket was crowded with people like Terrence Fedele, given a one-year suspended sentence in 2002 for illegal narcotics sales and possession of hydrocodone.
Nearly a decade later, Fedele was married and helping to raise a stepdaughter. He wanted a pardon so he could get clearance to work in the ports.
It took the board members just a few seconds to decide, by a unanimous 5-0 vote, that Fedele deserved a pardon recommendation. They did the same for Christopher James Bellard, of Lake Charles, convicted in 2001 on two counts of simple burglary after throwing bricks through some car windows.
Jessie Gross of Ponchatoula, who spent a year behind bars for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine in 1990, also got a pardon. He owns a trucking business, but the work is starting to take a physical toll and he would like to get hired by the School Board as a bus driver. He also would like to own a firearm.
Marie Ann Terrell of West Monroe was not as lucky. A former heroin addict whose criminal record includes robbery and prostitution charges in California, Terrell was given a 50-year sentence after she helped carry out a 1980 bank robbery in Plain Dealing that netted more than $100,000. She has been out of prison since 2004, but her parole won’t expire until 2033.
She told the board that she’s had trouble finding work, having toiled on and off as a cook since her release. She wants her record cleared so she can work in a nursing home.
It took the board less than three minutes, meeting behind closed doors in executive session, to decide that Terrell hadn’t been free long enough to earn a pardon recommendation.
“I think you’re on the right path. I just think you need a little more time,” Clark explained. The vote to deny was unanimous.
‘Not the Same Man’
It was Arabie, however, who was the main attraction.
In September 1984, Arabie was 21 years old, an electrical lineman who sold pot on the side. He made arrangements to sell 10 pounds of the drug to two men from Meridian, Miss., for $9,000.
Benny Posey and his accomplices had a different plan in mind when they met Arabie and his business partner at the Butte La Rose exit off Interstate 10. They pistol-whipped Arabie and stole his drugs, leaving the two men tied up along the side of the road.
Arabie and his partner soon made it back to their automobile, beginning a high-speed chase down I-10 toward Baton Rouge. At the bottom of an off-ramp, the van carrying Posey suddenly stalled. As Posey fled the vehicle, Arabie fired a single shot from his 9 mm semi-automatic handgun, killing Posey at a distance of 22 yards.
Decades later, recounting the fateful moment, Arabie wrote that he “was motivated by fear … quite literally, I was scared out of my wits. I imagined that he would exit that van in a volley of gunfire. How could I have thought otherwise?”
If shooting at Posey was Arabie’s first critical mistake, his second error was rejecting a pretrial plea bargain that would have put him in prison for manslaughter and, in all likelihood, made him a free man after five years. Arabie decided to take his chances at trial. He was convicted of second-degree murder and began serving life without parole on Nov. 5, 1985.
Arabie was an unruly inmate at first. He was written up 32 times in his first few years. In 1988, he escaped from the Louisiana State Police Barracks and fled to the Florida Keys.
But by the mid-1990s, he began to turn his life around. He earned a GED diploma and certification as a computer technician, becoming a leader in Angola’s vo-tech programs. He is now a master mechanic and a mentor to his fellow inmates. After Hurricane Katrina, he was part of a select crew entrusted to help fix broken water pumps in New Orleans.
As time went on, just about everyone connected with the case — except the prosecutor — began to think that Arabie had served enough time.
“I was of the opinion then, as his trial judge, that the maximum penalty he should have received was 21 years of confinement,” the judge, L.J. Hymel, wrote in a letter to the board.
Benny Posey’s family was no less convinced that his killer had been punished enough.
“Shelby Arabie is not the same man he was on Sept. 20, 1984,” Ashley Posey, Benny Posey’s daughter, told the board. “I ask that you give him hope.”
Chris Van Way, whose wife was a high school classmate of Arabie’s, told the board that Arabie has a job waiting for him at his company, J.P. Oil Holdings in Bakersfield, Calif., should he be released.
Finally there was Cain, the Angola warden, who said Arabie was just the third inmate he has ever recommended for a pardon. He called Arabie an inspiration to his fellow inmates, a daily example that rehabilitation is possible even for those serving a life sentence.
“It’s about a life that’s well-lived in circumstances that would tend to break people down,” Cain said.
It took the Pardon Board less than five minutes, meeting behind closed doors, to recommend to the governor that Arabie’s life sentence be reduced to 40 years plus good-time credit, which would make him immediately eligible for parole.
Eight months later, Arabie continues to wait for the governor’s signature.
Powerful Interests Obstruct to Reforming the State’s Draconian Sentencing Laws — Part 4 of a 7 Part Series
Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Prison Sentence Reform Efforts Face Tough
Opposition in the Legislature
There was optimism in the air on the chilly day in January 2011 when Gov. Bobby Jindal announced an ambitious effort to overhaul Louisiana’s sentencing laws. A bipartisan cross-section of law enforcement leaders surrounded the governor in the Capitol’s fourth-floor conference room. Sheriffs, district attorneys and judges were there. So were leaders of the state House and Senate, along with good-government groups and national criminal justice experts.
For the first time in a decade, a political consensus was emerging that it was time to reduce Louisiana’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. In the past two decades, the state’s prison population has more than doubled, with one of every 86 residents serving time.
Weeks later, the 22-member state Sentencing Commission, revived by Jindal after years of dormancy, produced a package of bills aimed at tackling some of the key factors driving the increase, including long sentences for nonviolent crimes and large numbers of offenders being sent back to prison for violations of parole or probation.
The five bills would eventually pass and get signed by the governor, but only after the most important parts — the ones that would have actually reduced prison sentences — were removed under pressure from sheriffs and district attorneys.
This year, though, two of the commission’s failed measures from the previous year were revived and have progressed smoothly through the Legislature, with Jindal’s backing. The measures are unlikely to have a substantial effect on the incarceration rate, and the cost savings will not be immediately apparent, but their passage provides a ray of hope for reformers.
Even as prison populations have strained the state budget and prompted fiscal conservatives to join liberals in calling for changes, the political calculus in Louisiana has evolved slowly since a series of tough sentencing laws in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s bloated the state’s inmate counts.
If anything, the balance has remained tilted toward law enforcement. After a prison-building boom in the 1990s, Louisiana sheriffs now house more than half of inmates serving state time — by far the nation’s highest percentage in local prisons. Their financial stake in the prison system means they will lose money if sentences are shortened. They typically house the same drug pushers, burglars and other nonviolent offenders who will be the likely targets of any serious efforts to change the system.
“The three easiest votes for a legislator are against taxes, against gambling and to put someone in jail for the rest of their lives,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, a veteran policymaker who has led the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate.
Still, reformers are not giving up. They vow to chip away at Louisiana’s prison problem, one small-scale measure at a time. The success this year of the Jindal-backed bills is a sign that the climate might be shifting slightly, prompted to some extent by a state fiscal crisis.
“Given the differences we had last session with the sheriffs and the DAs, where we ended up unwittingly at an impasse, we had an incredibly great session with the sheriffs and the DAs,” said Judge Fredericka Wicker of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal, who has been a leader on the Sentencing Commission, of this year’s deliberations. “There was a strong sense from both groups that they agreed with the entire package.”
Ellis “Pete” Adams has seen attempts at sentencing reform come and go in the 35 years since he became head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. At least four or five sentencing commissions, maybe a half-dozen, have convened — he can’t recall the exact number. The results of those long-forgotten efforts sit in a file cabinet in his spacious office, their recommendations rarely enacted.
“It usually arises (and) gets momentum when there are fiscal problems,” Adams said. “That’s when the confluence of conservative and liberal thinkers happens. The push for reducing the cost of corrections meets with the liberal view that, you know, our correction system is too harsh.”
That was certainly the case in January 2011, when Louisiana was facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and the Jindal administration was looking for ways to cut costs. The governor had made no secret of his desire to reduce recidivism and get incarceration costs under control, but to that point there had been little action.
“Certainly, it makes sense for us as a state to be reducing our recidivism rate and focusing and prioritizing our resources,” Jindal said late last year.
The Sentencing Commission’s current incarnation was designed from the start to be different than its predecessors. Past commissions have sometimes been dominated by outside groups with plenty of proposals for change but little idea of what could realistically get through the Legislature. They left behind well-meaning reports that now are mostly forgotten.
“You had basically reformer-types who were driving the recommendations, and whatever they would recommend, there really wasn’t enough stakeholder input and buy-in for the Legislature to pass those things,” Adams said.
In the newly formed commission, sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, victims advocates, public defenders and key legislators all had a voice.
By working through policy differences at the commission level, supporters hoped any bills that emerged would have enough momentum to convince recalcitrant lawmakers that they wouldn’t be punished politically for votes an opponent might characterize as being soft on crime.
There was good reason to get sheriffs and district attorneys on board early. Veterans of earlier efforts said it’s virtually impossible to get anything through the Legislature without support from those two critical groups.
“It’s not going to work if you have the DA association in an opposing role,” said former state Sen. Donald Cravins, an Opelousas Democrat who led efforts to revamp the state’s juvenile justice system in the early 2000s. “And the sheriffs’ association likewise. (Otherwise) you will never resolve it.”
That was the spirit in which the Sentencing Commission began its work. “The agreement we have with DAs and sheriffs (is) ‘We’re going to work together and we’re all going to support what comes out of the Sentencing Commission,’â” Jindal said.
Working on a compressed timetable with the 2011 spring session approaching, the panel decided against tackling some of the more volatile issues and instead settled on a package of five bills dealing with parole, good-time credits and home incarceration.
To carry the most far-reaching measures, the commission tapped state Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, who had arrested hundreds of suspected criminals as a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy and later helped prosecute them as an assistant district attorney.
“The bottom line is, if locking everybody up and throwing away the key works, then we should have the lowest crime rate in the United States,” Lopinto said. “We don’t. So then you have to really look at your policies. In my opinion, it’s strictly a fiscal issue.”
One of Lopinto’s proposals was intended to reduce the number of nonviolent, low-risk offenders in prison by speeding parole eligibility. Nonviolent felons made up 82 percent of the 17,223 admissions to Louisiana prisons in 2009, and Lopinto’s original bill would have required first- and second-time offenders to be considered for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences, down from as much as 50 percent.
Third-time offenders, who currently are not eligible for parole, would have been eligible after serving half of their sentences.
Another Lopinto measure was aimed at simplifying the “good time” provisions that allow inmates to reduce their sentences by behaving themselves behind bars. Critics complained that the current laws were a confusing patchwork that made it difficult for judges and prosecutors — let alone inmates and their families — to determine how much time needed to be served.
As the 2011 bill was originally drafted, it would have simplified the formula and changed it so that nonviolent offenders had to serve a minimum of 40 percent of their sentence, down from 46 percent, before they could be considered for good-time parole.
To be more palatable to the Legislature, both bills were designed to apply only to future offenders. Prisoners who were already locked up would have to live by the old rules.
Thus, the projected savings were small at first: The parole bill would have saved $6 million in the first year but more than $75 million over 10 years. The good-time bill was projected to save $4 million initially but $253 million over the course of a decade — money that would come from reducing the number of nonviolent, low-risk inmates serving time in local prisons.
Nevertheless, the parole bill quickly ran into trouble. Days after the session got under way in late April 2011, the District Attorneys Association voted to oppose the measure. As a result, the governor’s office quickly sent word that it could not support the bill and would consider a veto if it reached Jindal’s desk.
Just like that, the political cover the Sentencing Commission was designed to provide had largely vanished.
By the time the parole bill got to the Senate floor during last year’s spring session, it had been stripped of its original cost savings and only applied to first-time offenders — a fraction of those the commission had hoped to address.
Adams, the district attorneys’ lobbyist, said a “communications problem” was to blame and that the group had never agreed to support Lopinto’s bill if second- and third-time offenders were included.
“As late as when the bill got to the Senate, we had the lobbyist for the Sentencing Commission telling folks that the DAs had supported that earlier. That had never happened,” Adams said.
A similar fate befell the good-time bill, only this time it was the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association that put up the roadblock.
With the governor’s staff indicating that a veto might be coming if law enforcement wasn’t on board, Lopinto quickly agreed to shelve the formula changes and thus any potential savings that would come from shorter sentences.
The turnabout surprised everyone, including Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc. “We thought we had consensus when we went,” LeBlanc said.
Wicker and other key Sentencing Commission members were determined to avoid misunderstandings this time around.
After a yearlong series of public meetings and painstaking word-by-word edits, the commission’s 2012 legislative package appeared to have every interest group’s stamp of approval.
Perhaps for that reason, the eight proposed bills were less far-reaching than 2011′s relatively modest package. Taken together, the 2012 measures would not make much of a dent in the prison population or result in substantial cost savings.
Still, they were tiny steps away from Louisiana’s airtight tough-on-crime stance and toward more discretion for prosecutors and judges.
Then, at the February meeting where the commission was to finalize the package, a Jindal aide spoke up. The aide, Cloyce Clark, had attended all the previous meetings and even helped draft some of the legislation. Suddenly, he was pushing for changes that had not been vetted by commission members.
Clark wanted to kill a proposal to remove attempted crimes from the list of violent crimes requiring enhanced sentences. Another proposal would have allowed prosecutors to seek sentences below the mandatory minimum for all but the most serious crimes — an option that is unlikely to be exercised often but that allows for leniency in unusual cases. Clark asked that all violent crimes and sex crimes, not just the most serious, be excluded.
After heated debate and a few dissenting votes, the commission complied with both requests.
In fact, the most significant proposals to be associated with the commission in 2012 are versions of last year’s parole and good-time bills, which are not officially part of this year’s package but are considered to have the commission’s endorsement. Lopinto introduced the measures with the backing of the governor and the Department of Corrections once it was clear that the sheriffs and district attorneys would stand down.
The Political Will
George Steimel, a veteran lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the lack of progress in 2011 was a failure of political will.
“We know where the money-savers are. We know how to reduce the population,” Steimel said, discussing the reform package’s failure last year. “It’s the political will to do it, and that’s what failed this session.”
Martiny, the Kenner senator, said it’s hard to blame legislators, who are elected by the same voters who put the district attorneys and sheriffs in office. He cited his own efforts, earlier in the decade, to pass a series of changes to Louisiana’s troubled juvenile-justice system. Then, as now, it took months of careful negotiations to get DAs on board before his colleagues felt comfortable.
“If you give a legislator the opportunity to go either with the Innocence Project or with their DA, guess what? They’re going to vote with their DA,” Martiny said.
Still, veteran lawmakers say the political equation at the Capitol has shifted somewhat since the early 1990s, when crime rates were peaking, the victims-rights movement was in its heyday, and lawmakers were in a rush to pass mandatory minimum sentences.
The convening of the Sentencing Commission, at Jindal’s behest, was one sign of a new openness to reform. There are other signs that the mood might be changing at the Capitol and that lawmakers might be able to reduce sentences without the feared political repercussions.
Signs of Change
The revamped parole and good-time bills have sailed through the Legislature this session after Jindal agreed to support them and the law enforcement lobbies agreed not to oppose them.
One bill, which increases the rate of good-time accrual for nonviolent offenders, was signed by the governor last week, at a potential cost savings of $2,000 to $5,000 per offender.
Another bill makes second-time offenders eligible for parole after serving 33 percent of their sentences instead of the current 50 percent. It awaits the governor’s signature after passing the House and Senate by large margins.
The two measures apply only to people sentenced after Aug. 1, 2012. Any impact on the incarceration rate, the state budget and the sheriffs’ prison operations will be years down the road. But their easy journey through the legislative process thus far may signal some cracks in the tough-on-crime wall.
As in other states, an increasingly dire budget situation means that interest groups are feeling pressure to tone down their agendas and support cost-saving measures.
The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association decided not to take a position on either bill this year, despite opposing last year’s good-time measure. Sheriffs are mindful of the state’s financial problems, even as their top priority continues to be public safety, said Michael Ranatza, the group’s executive director.
“In these economic times, we’re generally understanding of the plight of the state of Louisiana,” Ranatza said. “We want to be good statesmen, and we’re aware of the tremendous economic woes.”
District attorneys, who opposed key aspects of last year’s parole bill, decided they could live with this year’s version after the minimum time served was adjusted down to 33 percent of a second-time offender’s sentence, rather than the 25 percent originally proposed. Sex offenders and habitual felons would not be eligible for the early parole.
“If somebody appropriate for parole happens to qualify, and we save money and do it without risk to public safety, that’s a great thing,” said Adams of the District Attorneys Association. “The budget is shrinking. If we can save money without increasing risk, we’re open to these kinds of things.”
Steimel attributes the gains in the 2012 legislative session to several factors. Last year was an election year, making everyone — sheriffs, district attorneys, legislators — wary of rocking the boat. This year, a fresh crop of lawmakers is getting its bearings in Baton Rouge and may be more open to a different way of thinking. And there are the fiscal pressures making voters more likely to accept giving criminals a break if dollars can be saved.
“This is probably the best time to start this type of movement and reform, to start educating this new legislature,” Steimel said.
Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Angola Inmates Are Taught Life Skills,
Then Spend Their Lives Behind Bars
ANGOLA — People always said Johna Haynes was lucky because of the white hair that sprouted from the crown of his head since he was a baby. He acquired the nickname “Patch” from New Orleans police officers, who came to know him all too well. At 31, the patch has turned into a bald spot, the pale strands now dispersed throughout his close-cropped dark hair, leaving him prematurely gray. “And still lucky?” someone asked.
He looked around incredulously at his surroundings — a late summer Sunday afternoon in the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s west yard, men playing basketball and lifting weights, stray cats sunning themselves on concrete ledges, an idyllic scene if one did not look to the barbed wire fences in the distance.
“I’m lucky I’m alive,” he finally said.
Something — the white patch, divine intervention or just plain luck — spared Haynes from a violent death, the fate of his brother, stepfather, stepbrother, cousin and innumerable friends. It did not spare him from another well-traveled path out of the Florida public housing complex: the winding, achingly bucolic bus ride to the penitentiary commonly known as Angola, where his own father served more than a decade and where Haynes is slated to spend the rest of his life without the possibility of parole.
Haynes estimates he stole at least 160 cars and committed at least 130 robberies in a brief, prolific criminal career before he was locked up forever at the age of 21. When he worked at a Shoney’s restaurant in Metairie, he never once took the bus — he always arrived in style on stolen wheels. The guns he took from parked cars at Carnival parades or the Bayou Classic became the guns he carried while selling drugs and the guns he used to rob people.
He was shot at many times and watched others die, but he was never hit. Nor, he said, has he ever killed anyone. His dangerous lifestyle caught up to him in a different way — life without parole for pointing a gun at a man and making off with his car and valuables. Two previous convictions, for stealing a car and for trying to escape from police custody, made Haynes a habitual offender. A young thug was off the streets for good.
Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its citizens serving life without parole, fueling the state’s world-leading incarceration rate. Angola is clogged with prisoners who will grow old and die there. Like Haynes, many arrived as young African-American men from rough neighborhoods who wrote themselves a ticket to either prison or an early death by embracing the lawless ethos of their peers.
Some criminal justice experts believe life without parole should be reserved for heinous murders, solely as an alternative to the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court recently did away with the sentence for juveniles who have not committed murder; Haynes was barely out of his teens during his final armed robbery.
Yet it may have been Angola, and a life sentence, that saved Johna Haynes. Now, he wants a chance to show that he has changed.
A gun-toting menace does not transform overnight into a model inmate with a Bible in his back pocket.
Wilbert Rideau, the condemned murderer turned world-famous prison journalist who was freed in 2005, writes in his memoir that his own awakening at Angola came about gradually. Through reading books, he discovered a world beyond the brutal, impoverished one he knew.
Arriving at Angola in August 2002, Haynes spent more than a year laboring in the fields and living in a tiny cell among the worst of the worst. Good behavior eventually made him eligible for a spot in the main prison, with its dormitory-style sleeping quarters, vocational classes and inmate-led clubs. Once considered the bloodiest prison in the country, Angola is now known for giving lifers, who make up nearly three-quarters of its population, the chance to build meaningful lives behind bars, even as they are unlikely to taste freedom again.
Murderers and rapists have embraced the prison’s wholesome, Christian-influenced values. Cursing is banned for inmates and staff alike. Violence is rare in the minimum- and medium-security dormitories where most of the 5,100 inmates live. The men make wooden toys for needy children, teach each other the piano or banjo, preach through self-run religious organizations and entertain the public at the famous twice-yearly rodeo.
A seventh-grade dropout, Haynes completed his GED certificate and studied auto mechanics. He began reading on his own, partaking of the “locker library” run by literary-minded inmates who trade well-worn paperbacks out of the metal chests that hold all their earthly possessions. He became a devout Christian.
As with Rideau a generation ago, it was not any one moment but an accumulation of small moments that made the armed robber into the bookworm. It took being in prison, completely cut off from his old ways, for Haynes to realize that the law of the jungle — preying on the weak, selling drugs, getting killed over a few hundred dollars or a down jacket — was not the way most people lived.
Haynes is now a sophomore in the Angola Bible college, an extension of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary — the only bachelor’s program open to prisoners, leading to a B.S. in Christian ministry. He hopes his four children — a son, two daughters and a stepdaughter — will have the future he did not.
“The change I’ve undergone is for the best, because had I not straightened up I would most likely be as many of my friends who are deceased,” Haynes wrote in a letter. “It hurts me to know that a lot of them lost their lives before they even got to see life. But that pain has an element of positivity to it because I use it as fuel to power my dreams.”
Getting an Education
Angola is like a 9th Ward reunion. The man who used to sleep in the bunk above Haynes was a classmate from Carver Elementary. Haynes’ uncle is a fellow inmate. More than a dozen friends from the old neighborhood are now permanent companions at “The Farm.”
At Haynes’ urging, his two younger brothers moved to rural north Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to escape the temptations of the street. Dwight Haynes made a new life for himself in Winnsboro.
The other brother, June, went back to New Orleans and was shot dead last February, at age 21. Johna Haynes called the killing “the worst thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been living.”
“There’s always periods in your odyssey where you feel like, ‘Man, I’m ready to leave this alone. I want to be with my kids. I want to have a family. I’m tired of looking behind my back,’ ” Haynes said. “But you just don’t have the education to get a job that’s going to provide for you. That I’m going to be a CEO today? You can’t say that. You can be a laborer; you can be a burger flipper or something like that.”
In prison, Haynes is finally getting the education that could have led to a better job on the outside. Heading to a tutorial for an electrician certification exam, Haynes grabbed a book to supplement the Bible he always carries. “I need something to read if there’s any down time,” he explained. His possessions, spread on his narrow bunk, could be cleaned up later. No one would steal from him, he said, since he has long ago established his reputation as someone not to be messed with.
A husky 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 280 pounds, Haynes has a broad face that breaks easily into a bemused grin when recounting the absurdities of his former criminal lifestyle. A tattoo of his mother’s name, Rachel, is visible above the neckline of his prison-issue white T-shirt. Janay, for his oldest daughter, is inked on his left arm, near a long scar where he was stabbed as a teenager in a fight over a girl. In 10 years, he has left the 18,000-acre prison once, to receive treatment for a stomach ailment.
To stay abreast of new technology and avoid becoming a Rip Van Winkle if he is ever released, he saves news clippings about Facebook and Twitter. He reads a trade magazine for chief financial officers, in case he achieves his dream of running a mobile car detailing and air-conditioning repair business. The flashcards he keeps in his jeans pockets are covered with words he wants to remember: “verve,” “esplanade,” “tetchy,” “detritus,” “paleontologist,” “saké.”
When he was running the streets, he had no need for books. Now, his body trapped, the life of the mind beckons. Cicero, Khalil Gibran, George Bernard Shaw and the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards are a refuge from the humiliating routines of prison life — stopping whatever you are doing to be counted three times a day; eating beans, rice and cornbread when you crave a pork chop; sleeping in an un-air-conditioned dorm with 80 other men at the height of Louisiana summer. Over the years, Haynes has scrounged a few extra towels to stuff under his bedsheet, making the stiff plastic mattress a touch more comfortable.
“I saw the cherry blossoms from Angola; reading is my escape,” he wrote of the Japanese novel “The Makioka Sisters,” set in pre-World War II Osaka.
‘A more moral person’
By Haynes’ own reckoning, he would have remained a thug at heart, ready to resume terrorizing innocent New Orleanians, had he received a shorter sentence at a prison that did not offer as many opportunities for self-improvement. He is unexpectedly candid in acknowledging that he needed a life sentence to appreciate the value of his life. But there needs to be an out, he said, a way to show that, after 10, 20 or 30 years behind bars, he is no longer a threat to society.
Louisiana lifers used to get out on parole after serving 10 years and six months. The law was changed in 1979 to “life means life.” Since then, Angola has been filling up with men who, barring a rare reprieve, will spend the rest of their lives there. The pardon board only intervenes in extraordinary cases, and even then, governors are reluctant to sign the release papers, fearing a politically damaging relapse.
“See, a lot of time when dudes come to prison, if their sentence is short, they can’t wait to go home,” Haynes said. “You have to put the person in the situation where it’s like cornering a cat. You’re going to go into this corner, and the only way you’re going to come out is as a changed person. If I’d had five years or 10 years, I don’t think I would have made this type of change.”
For Haynes and others like him, change means scrapping a violent, revenge-filled moral code reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys. The code requires that he kill anyone who disrespects him or his family. It allows, even expects, that he steal: “If I want it and he got it, I’m ‘a get it’ (from him),” in Haynes’ words.
Yet Haynes recalls simple acts of kindness from his youth in New Orleans, the nation’s most murderous city. He looked after a paralyzed neighbor, giving beer and massages to the wheelchair-bound man. He entered narrow passageways ahead of his companions to protect them from any gunfire that might be directed at him.
Troy Delone, one of Haynes’ closest friends at Angola, has become a religious man and a scholar in prison. When the two met in 2003, they were close in age, both from New Orleans housing projects, both deciding whether to try something new or keep bucking the system.
“Should I put myself in prison, while in prison? Stay in the cell blocks, Camp J — when is this going to stop?” as Delone put it, referring to the maximum-security parts of Angola where troublemakers reside with limited access to recreation or education.
Delone, 33, is a senior in the Bible college and a mentor in the Orleans Parish Criminal Court’s re-entry program for young offenders. He is serving two sentences of life without parole for a pair of armed robberies.
“Although he wasn’t that much on a positive road, he was always intelligent, book-wise,” Delone said of his friend. “Since then, he’s enhanced that. He’s grown spiritually and become a more moral person. More of the old Johna is diminishing, and he’s becoming a new person.”
Delone himself has changed so much in speech and manner that his street cred has diminished. The younger inmates he mentors regard him with wariness until he convinces them that he grew up in the Iberville projects and used to be just like them.
The other day in class, Haynes impressed John Robson, the college’s director, with an impassioned speech about the corrupt values he once lived by. A second-year student in a class of 100, he is a standout.
“He is really articulate. He is exceptional in his articulation, very transparent. He’s a blue-chipper,” Robson said.
Born to a Life of Crime
Although he barely knew his father, Haynes followed square in the old man’s footsteps. When he was born on Jan. 19, 1981, his father, Melvin Jones, was serving time at Angola for killing a man in a bar fight. When Haynes entered prison himself, his then-girlfriend was pregnant with his son, Johna Jr., now 10.
Haynes’ role model growing up was an older cousin named Turk, who schooled him in the ways of the street. By the time Turk died at 19 in a hail of semiautomatic fire, he had taught his protege well. Young Johna knew how to steal without the slightest prick of conscience, to keep a handcuff key in his pocket in case he was arrested, to target Dodges, Chryslers and Jeeps because they did not need to be hot-wired but could be started with a screwdriver in the ignition. He sold his first drugs at 11, pocketing a commission from a crack dealer who feared the buyers were undercover agents. At 13 and 14, he was peddling rocks with Turk in the Calliope housing project.
His mother, Rachel Haynes, who gave birth to him when she was 14, stayed in an abusive relationship with Johna’s stepfather for years before striking out on her own. She raised five children on welfare and then on a restaurant cook’s meager salary.
Johna, her oldest, was a bright student, but finishing his assignments early only gave him more time to goof off in class. After he dropped out in seventh grade, the authorities made him enroll in alternative schools, but he never lasted long.
“I was a single parent. I did the best I could. He was always in trouble,” Rachel Haynes said. “I told him, ‘Johna, you have to stop. The streets are going to catch up to you.’ … I wish he would have changed when he was out here and I was begging him to change.”
Stints in Orleans Parish Prison did nothing to scare Johna straight. At 18, riding in a stolen car on the way to a party, he tried to rob two men of their gold jewelry using a pellet gun. One of the victims had a real gun and shot Haynes’ 13-year-old friend. Even though he knew the police would come looking for him, Haynes kept vigil at the hospital for his young friend, who died that night.
In the squad car, Haynes’ handcuff key served its purpose. He jimmied the lock and made a run for it. He was never prosecuted for the attempted pellet gun robbery but was sentenced to a year for the attempted escape.
“I’m really not sure how many cars I stole. A number like 160 is pretty high, but it might be low,” Haynes wrote recently. “I remember a time when I was counting all the people I’ve robbed — I got up to 134 or 130. I hate these numbers! But guess what, I have no secrets. I appreciate where I’ve been, it just makes where I’m headed more beautiful. As for the cars, I’ll go with the 160, though it’s modest.”
On June 11, 2001, nearly a year after his release from prison, Haynes shoved a lady’s stocking over his head and pulled a gun on a man named Curtis Aubry outside an auto body shop on St. Roch Avenue. He grabbed Aubry’s possessions — two rings, a watch, a bracelet and $500 — and took off in Aubry’s car.
“It’s like once you do it, it’s addictive, it gratifies. Why sell drugs for 12 hours when you could steal it from someone?” Haynes said, recalling his former mindset.
After a half-day trial, an Orleans Parish jury found the 20-year-old guilty of armed robbery. Judge Julian Parker gave him the maximum — 99 years without parole — before then-District Attorney Harry Connick’s office upped the ante, charging him as a triple offender. On May 24, 2002, Parker resentenced him to life without parole.
Four days after Haynes committed his final armed robbery, the law changed. Louisiana legislators decided the two prior offenses on a multibill had to be more serious than those Haynes had racked up for auto theft and the escape attempt. The change did not apply to crimes that occurred before that date.
For Haynes, the downgrade would have made little difference, even had it applied retroactively. Ninety-nine years without parole for the armed robbery — a crime he admits he committed — still would have put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
Burl Cain is perhaps the most famous prison warden in the country because of the many films and books documenting life at Angola. Short and heavyset, his square face topped by a thatch of white hair, he delivers bon mots in a thick Louisiana drawl.
“Thug,” “pure rogue” and “animal” are some of the terms he uses to describe many of the newly convicted criminals entering his prison.
Yet he is a firm believer that “really horrible people” can change. Even Telly Hankton, who recently shocked New Orleans with the audacity of his brutal revenge killing and attempts to tamper with the justice system, could become a new man at Angola.
“I won’t be here, but in 25 or 27, 28 years, it’ll be interesting to see what he’s like,” Cain said of Hankton.
Louisiana is one of six states where all life sentences are handed down without the chance of ever going before a parole board. First- and second-degree murderers automatically receive life without parole, on the guilty votes of as few as 10 of 12 jurors.
Nearly 12 percent of Louisiana inmates, or more than 4,500 people, are serving life without parole — the highest proportion in the nation, according to a Sentencing Project report. While most have committed violent crimes, nearly one in 10 are locked up forever on drug or other nonviolent offenses. Three in four are African-American men.
In Texas, less than 1 percent of state prisoners are serving life without parole; the figure in Tennessee is 1.3 percent.
Cain sides with those who find the sentence morally objectionable because it assumes a person cannot be rehabilitated. Lifers like Johna Haynes should get periodic hearings before a parole board, Cain said — by no means a guarantee of release, but a chance to prove that a drastic transformation has taken place, provided the victim does not voice strong objections.
“I absolutely don’t believe in it,” Cain said, “because when you say, ‘Life without parole,’ you’ve given up on the criminal and said, ‘You cannot be helped and therefore you’re going to stay in jail until you die.’ ”
At Angola, a new arrival cannot be housed unless someone else is transferred out or dies. With three-quarters serving life without parole and one-quarter at least 50 years old, medical costs are skyrocketing at the same time the budget is shrinking due to state cutbacks. The much-praised hospice program, where younger inmates care for the dying, was born of necessity. At an average of $63.15 a day, a lifer who enters prison in his early 20s will cost taxpayers over $1 million if he lives past age 70.
Once a slave plantation, Angola is still a working farm, with thousands of acres of corn, peas, squash, beans and other crops under cultivation. But there are no longer enough able-bodied inmates to work the fields — only about 300 or 400, compared with 1,000 in past decades. The rest are too old or have graduated to other work assignments. Last year, Angola had to import workers from another state prison to bring in the harvest.
“I’m worried about prison being a place for predators and not dying old men,” Cain said. “That’s what it’s really for, and I want predators, sleeping in these beds, that’s going to hurt you — instead of a bunch of old men that’s creeping around on their last legs costing my budget a fortune.”
Cain occasionally advocates for inmates before the pardon board, but only a select few he believes have zero chance of committing another crime. By the time a man is into his 50s, “criminal menopause” has set in, with statistics showing older parolees much less likely to become repeat offenders. Known for infusing Angola with religion, Cain said Christianity provides a convenient package of values but is not the only path to change.
Rehabilitation is a slow process. It takes at least 10 years for change to take root, Cain said, and more like 20 to 25 to completely exorcise the criminal within. By that measure, Haynes is only halfway there. Even if he truly changes, his path to freedom is narrow. The law that allowed for his life sentence is no longer on the books, but at every stage, the odds are heavily stacked against tampering with a court’s verdict.
For tough-on-crime advocates, long sentences remove dangerous people like Johna Haynes from the streets, while also acting as a deterrent. People are capable of changing, but they should not be released from the penalty they brought on themselves, said Irv Magri, a former New Orleans police officer and president of the victims rights group Crimefighters.
“It may be harsh, but if you could pass a bill requiring life imprisonment for anyone pushing heroin or cocaine above a certain number of grams, I’m telling you, your crime rate is going to drop tremendously. They’re going to go somewhere else,” Magri said.
Hope For His Children
In ornate, left-tilting script, Haynes writes letters to his four children, taking care with his grammar and spelling to set a good example. He urges them to stay in school and out of trouble, to aspire to college and a good career, to not let the many family tragedies get them down.
They rarely write back. Instant gratification from video games and text messages is much closer at hand. He settles for annual visits at the prison’s Returning Hearts family day. His mother, who does not own a car and says she has not been able to arrange transportation, has not seen her son since he got married at Angola in 2005, a few months before Katrina. She has troubles of her own, recently serving time on a heroin charge and dealing with the shooting death of her youngest son, June.
Haynes and his former wife Esther, who is Johna Jr.’s mother, have since divorced, though he still considers her his “ideal.”
Janay, the daughter he had before he met Esther, is attending high school in Philadelphia, where she settled after Katrina.
Domonique — Esther’s daughter and Hayne’s stepdaughter — is a senior at Warren Easton High School. She aspires to be an attorney and interned for Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ernestine Gray last summer.
Kayla, Haynes’ youngest daughter, also wants to be an attorney, but at 14, she has not been attending school. She experienced the juvenile justice system from the defendants’ side after stabbing another girl on the school bus. Two of her uncles, including Haynes’ brother June, died within a year of each other. There is only so much her father can do from prison, but his words carry weight because of his own troubled past.
“I think the only thing I can do while I’m in prison is write to her and encourage her,” Haynes said. “When I talk to her, she listens. We have this bond, this connect, between each other. She knows what I’m saying is true, what I’m saying is real.”
Between his studies, church and rehearsals for his gospel rap group, Haynes has little spare time. He usually plays on prison basketball teams but has been sidelined due to an Achilles injury. He is a regular at the law library, researching cases that might move his appeal forward, though success, especially without an attorney, is an extreme long shot.
Believing he will leave Angola someday requires a leap of faith. Does he ever picture himself as one of those elderly inmates in a wheelchair, a common sight at the prison? No, that would be too dangerous. He believes because he has to, because if he stops believing, he might stop his relentless quest to learn more, to become better, to guide his children in the right direction, to keep the old Johna at bay.
Never mind that during a decade behind bars, his lucky patch has vanished, leaving only scattered strands of gray. According to his newfound religion, God protected him on the streets of New Orleans when bullets flew, God is watching him behind the gates of Angola, and God will rescue him from the unyielding weight of life without parole when the time comes.
“I was a terrible kid. I was terrible,” Haynes said. “I look back on it and I say, ‘Man, God had to be with me,’ because there was a lot of times I should have been dead, a lot of times I’ve been shot at, a lot of things I did, that I didn’t want to be living. But God sees otherwise.”
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Serving Clients in Orleans Parish, St. Tammany Parish, St. John Parish, St. James Parish, St. Bernard Parish, St. Charles Parish, Assumption Parish, Tangipahoa Parish, Terrebonne Parish, Plaquemines Parish and Jefferson Parish.
Simple Escape / Aggravated Escape — La RS 14:110
Simple escape shall mean any of the following:
The intentional departure, under circumstances wherein human life is not endangered, of a person imprisoned, committed, or detained from a place where such person is legally confined, from a designated area of a place where such person is legally confined, or from the lawful custody of any law enforcement officer or officer of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
The failure of a criminal serving a sentence and participating in a work release program authorized by law to report or return from his planned employment or other activity under the program at the appointed time.
The failure of a person who has been granted a furlough to return to his place of confinement at the appointed time.
A person who is participating in a work release program and who commits the crime of simple escape shall be imprisoned with or without hard labor for not less than six months nor more than one year and any such sentence shall not run concurrently with any other sentence.
A person who fails to return from an authorized furlough shall be imprisoned with or without hard labor for not less than six months nor more than one year and any such sentence shall not run concurrently with any other sentence.
A person imprisoned, committed, or detained who commits the crime of simple escape shall be imprisoned with or without hard labor for not less than two years nor more than five years; provided that such sentence shall not run concurrently with any other sentence.
Aggravated Escape is the intentional departure of a person from the legal custody of any officer of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections or any law enforcement officer or from any place where such person is legally confined when his departure is under circumstances wherein human life is endangered.
Whoever commits an aggravated escape as herein defined shall be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than 5 years nor more than 10 years and any such sentence shall not run concurrently with any other sentence.
** For purposes of this Section, a person shall be deemed to be in the lawful custody of a law enforcement officer or of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and legally confined when he is in a rehabilitation unit, a work release program, or any other program under the control of a law enforcement officer or the department.
** The provisions of this Section shall be applicable to all penal, correctional, rehabilitational, and work release centers and any and all prison facilities under the control of the sheriffs of the respective parishes of the state of Louisiana. The prison facilities shall include but are not limited to parish jails, correctional centers, work release centers, and rehabilitation centers, hospitals, clinics, and any and all facilities where inmates are confined under the jurisdiction and control of the sheriffs of the respective parishes.
Private Firms Reap Profit While Sheriffs Reap Jobs and Cash From Louisiana Prisons — Part 2 in a 7 Part Series
Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Louisiana Is The World’s Prison Capital
North Louisiana Family Is a Major Force
In The State’s Vast Prison Industry
JONESBORO — Clay McConnell is an unlikely scion for a prison empire. An ordained minister, his curly brown hair is fashionably rumpled, and he gets flustered when speaking in front of a video camera. His father, Billy, is the brains behind LaSalle Corrections, the one who expanded the family business from senior citizens to criminals.
When a prison-building boom swept north Louisiana in the 1990s, Billy McConnell got in on the financing and construction ends. Then he thought, why not run the prisons, too? He already ran nursing homes, and the bottom line was the same. His experience feeding and housing old folks could be applied to keeping drug pushers and petty thieves behind bars.
“We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You have to treat people fairly and run a good ship, but run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs,” said Clay McConnell, 37.
Today, the McConnells are a major force in Louisiana’s vast prison industry, playing a role in the incarceration of one in seven prisoners. The family’s fortunes have risen hand in hand with those of rural sheriffs who are the best-known face of Louisiana Incarceration-for-Profit Inc. More than half of the state’s 40,000 inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs or private companies like LaSalle for the express purpose of making a buck.
Whether a sheriff uses the revenue to buy shotguns or whether LaSalle uses it to build a gleaming new headquarters, the result is the same. If you are sentenced to state time in Louisiana, odds are you will be placed in a local prison — a low-budget, for-profit enterprise where you are likely to languish in your bunk, day after day, year after year, bored out of your skull with little chance to learn a trade or otherwise improve yourself. A coveted spot at a state prison like Angola, Hunt or Dixon is a long shot for anyone not convicted of a violent crime such as murder, rape or armed robbery.
Local prisons specialize in incarceration on the cheap. State prisons are built on huge acreage, offer an array of vocational classes and require able-bodied inmates to work. While the average daily price tag for an inmate at a state prison is $55 a day, local prisons only get $24.39 — and try to wring a few extra dollars from that.
Yet these are the very inmates, convicted of minor crimes such as drug possession and writing bad checks, who will soon be back in society. While lifers at Angola learn welding, plumbing and auto mechanics, 11,000 of the 15,000 people released from Louisiana prisons each year come out of local facilities and have had no such opportunities.
Louisiana locks up more people per capita than any other state. One in 86 of its adult citizens is behind bars. Of those Louisiana inmates, 53 percent are housed in local prisons — by far the highest percentage in the country.
The two statistics are inextricably linked. Prison operators, who depend on the world’s highest incarceration rate to survive, are a hidden driver behind the harsh sentencing laws that put so many people away for long periods. Then, there are the regime’s losers: the ex-convicts who have not received any rehabilitation in local prisons and the innocent citizens who become their victims.
This incarceration bonanza evolved with the wholehearted encouragement of the Louisiana Department of Corrections as a cheap, ad hoc solution to overcrowding in the state prisons. The state spends $182 million a year to house inmates in local prisons. While rural sheriffs and private investors reap the benefits, the negative consequences are most acute in New Orleans and other urban areas that produce more criminals than they can house in their own local jails.
South Louisiana’s crime problems fuel north Louisiana’s incarceration industry. The dollars that might have been scraped together to pay for inmate rehabilitation go instead to upgrading a rural sheriff’s vehicle fleet.
Annual profits in good years range from about $200,000 for an average-sized operation to as much as $1 million for parishes with several prisons.
“For the sheriffs, that became like heroin, that became a regular source of income for them,” said Burk Foster, a former University of Louisiana-Lafayette professor and an expert on Louisiana prisons. “The way they save money is not because the sheriffs are more efficient but because they have fewer staff and almost no services in terms of medical care or psychological assistance or rehab or educational classes.”
‘I Get The Patronage’
The drive down U.S. Route 167 to the Jackson Parish Correctional Center on a cold, drizzly December day is bleak and beautiful. For mile upon mile, pine trees mingle with bare branches and the last of the season’s dying leaves in a panorama of green, gray and red. Near Jonesboro, the parish seat, a factory spews white clouds, infusing the air with a sickly sweet smell as cardboard boxes made from local lumber take shape inside.
For as long as anyone can remember, north-central Louisiana has been timber country. These days, it is also prison country. Although Jackson Parish came relatively late to the prison game, the correctional center and its 130 jobs are as vital to the local economy as the Smurfit-Stone cardboard plant.
Inside, prisoners in black-and-white striped jumpsuits nap on bunk beds. It is 9 a.m., and breakfast was served hours ago. There is nothing to do until lunch. Some watch television in a corner of the dormitory, which houses about 80 men. At least there is a cafeteria and daily yard time. At some local prisons, inmates eat in their dorms and only breathe fresh air a few times a week.
An orange uniform denotes trustee status — about 100 of these inmates mop floors and prepare food inside the prison. Another 100 leave the premises each day for jobs in the free world as part of a work-release program. Two dorms are devoted to a Christian-themed substance-abuse program called Celebrate Recovery. The rest of the 1,100 men, the lowly black-and-white stripes, must figure out how to amuse themselves.
When Sheriff Andy Brown was elected in 2004, Jackson Parish’s only jail was on the top floor of a 1930s-era courthouse so Old South it retains a long-defunct hook and trapdoor for hangings. Inmates enjoyed plugging up the toilets so the whole building, including the sheriff’s office, would flood. Brown ran on the promise of a new jail for local residents incarcerated while awaiting trial.
The best way to finance the operation, Brown realized, was to scale it up by also keeping prisoners from other parishes who would bring in the $24.39 state per diem. Could he raise enough cash from his rural electorate to build such a large prison, and did he want to branch out from law enforcement to feed, house and secure hundreds of inmates from tough urban areas?
The sheriff decided to bring in Billy McConnell’s company, LaSalle Corrections, which is based in nearby Ruston and runs a dozen prisons in north Louisiana and Texas. LaSalle poured $15 million into the one-story warehouse-like structures a few miles from Jonesboro’s quaint, semi-abandoned downtown.
The company owns and manages the Jackson Parish Correctional Center, but it needs the sheriff as much as the sheriff needs it: Only government entities can receive inmates from the state. In return, Brown’s department gets a guaranteed $100,000 a year.
Brown now has a decent place to house his pretrial inmates. The regular payments from LaSalle certainly come in handy. But for him, the real cake is the jobs. He made sure the prison’s 100-plus employees would be sheriff’s deputies with full government benefits, instantly tripling his workforce. LaSalle pays their salaries, while Brown has the final say on hiring and firing. His constituents are always asking about openings. For a parish of only 16,000 residents, a 1,147-bed prison is an economic powerhouse. Last fall, Brown won re-election unopposed.
“There’s a lot of patronage here by hiring all these people. It’s good for a rural community,” Brown said. “We were able to bring a facility to this community without using any tax dollars. We employ X number of people and don’t spend any money, plus the $100,000 a year sponsor fee. I get the patronage.”
Far From Home
Among the inmates from New Orleans in Jackson Parish Correctional Center on that chilly December day are Michael Heine, 26, serving five years for burglary; David Adams, 45, transferred from a state prison because of his skill in painting cars; and Tyrone Dupleche, 39, with five years left on drug charges.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Orleans Parish Prison has not had room for all the low-level convicts sentenced at Tulane and Broad. About one in five of those with sentences of fewer than 10 years ends up at a local prison in another parish. In Jefferson Parish, nearly all the convicted burglars, swindlers and drug dealers are sent hundreds of miles from home to be fed on as little as $1.50 a day.
Jackson gets about a quarter of its inmates from the New Orleans metro area, with more than 200 typically hailing from Jefferson Parish. LaSalle houses many more south Louisiana natives at its other prisons, which form a swath roughly paralleling Interstate 20 — Catahoula, Claiborne, LaSalle, Richwood, Lincoln, Concordia. In Richland Parish, the company has a financial stake in the prison but does not manage it.
Few Louisianians have heard of LaSalle Corrections, but its reach is broad: A quarter of local prison inmates are incarcerated in a LaSalle-affiliated facility.
Dupleche, a 9th Ward native, is lucky to have a job in the prison cafeteria. At least there is something to take his mind off the distance from his family in New Orleans. He applied for a geographic transfer but never heard back.
“These places, you just housed. It’s a warehouse. And then to be away from home,” said Dupleche, a round-faced man with a shaved head, clad in an orange trustee jumpsuit. In nearly a year, he has not had a visit from his aunt and grandmother, who are too old and sick to make the five-hour drive from New Orleans. In a previous stint at Dixon Correctional Institute, a state prison, Dupleche learned the plastering trade, landing a job at Stucco King when he returned home. At Jackson, he simply marks time.
Adams is more philosophical about the distance. The Algiers native started his armed-robbery sentence in 1998 at Avoyelles state prison. There, he learned how to paint cars.
After 12 years, Adams was transferred to a local prison in Concordia Parish, near the Mississippi River. The reason? The Concordia sheriff needed someone to paint his patrol vehicles. Adams didn’t get along with a lieutenant there, so off he went to a LaSalle-run prison, also in Concordia. Since last June, he has been at Jackson, where the staff is making good use of his painting skills.
Adams chooses not to dwell on the series of transfers. The private prisons are less authoritarian than state facilities, he said, and there is more trust between inmates and guards. His job allows him to spend most of his time outdoors. He doesn’t mind being far from home; he is planning to leave New Orleans and its troubled streets behind anyway. When he is released in three years, he would like to open an auto body shop in Natchez, where he has family.
“You accept your surroundings. This is part of my sentence,” said Adams. “All I’m worried about is the 36 months. Prison is prison.”
Heine is similarly sanguine. He wishes the prison offered more classes, which would be “a lot more time off people’s hands and give them something to look forward to when they get home.” But for him, the distance from New Orleans is a good thing, providing him with distraction-free time to think about what went wrong and how to do better.
Incarceration Gold Rush
Two decades ago, the last thing Louisiana sheriffs wanted was more inmates. The state prison system was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, and there was no money for new facilities.
The backlog flowed to the sheriffs, who were outraged at having the problem foisted on them. Charles Foti, then the sheriff of Orleans Parish, famously dumped a busload of inmates in a state prison parking lot.
Richard Stalder, who took over the Department of Corrections in 1992, saw a solution. Sweeten the financial incentives, he reasoned, and sheriffs would change their tune. Sure enough, an increased per diem payment and a guarantee of 40 percent occupancy was enough to spark an incarceration gold rush. Sheriffs, seeing jobs for their constituents and new equipment for their deputies, volunteered to build the new prisons the state could not afford. The once-recalcitrant Foti expanded his prison to more than 7,000 beds.
In rural, impoverished north Louisiana, the deal was particularly alluring, not only for sheriffs but for private investors, who knocked on sheriffs’ doors, dangling financing and profit-sharing deals. Low, cinder-block buildings ringed with barbed wire sprouted along country highways across the state.
Some small-time investors merely fronted capital for construction costs, collecting monthly rent while avoiding the headaches of running a prison. Billy McConnell, with his nursing home experience, plunged into the management side. Another Louisiana company, LCS Corrections, developed a similar profile, with three prisons in Louisiana and three in Texas. Louisiana’s private prison industry is mostly homegrown: The national chains CCA and GEO each operate a state prison but no local prisons.
A handful of tiny towns have even gotten in on the spoils. Richwood, a town of 3,400 near Monroe, gets more than $100,000 a year from LaSalle for the right to operate a 900-bed prison. Epps, population 854, leases its prison rights to Lafayette-based Emerald Prison Enterprises in exchange for an annual payment of as much as $200,000. The 700-some prisoners almost outnumber Epps residents, and the detention center accounts for half the village’s annual revenue.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, downplays the profit motive. Sheriffs are saving taxpayers a lot of money by incarcerating a prisoner on just $24.39 a day, Ranatza said. The association is in favor of more inmate programs, but money is an issue.
“It’s not like just warehousing. We are providing a lot of programs for $24.39,” Ranatza said. “But as costs continue to rise, that’s what they’re faced with — you’re getting a lot of them operating right on the edge.”
So many prisons were built in the boom times of the 1990s that sheriffs are having trouble keeping their beds full, in a business where less than 100 percent occupancy means going in the red. Now, instead of unloading inmates, sheriffs compete with each other for the catch of the day. They trade inmates as they please — shipping some to a colleague with beds to fill, unloading a guy who complains too much or asking around for a skilled mechanic.
As the cost of food, staffing and health care rises without a corresponding increase in the per diem, some sheriffs are even thinking about selling.
“If you’re losing money, you have to do something. If you have a business and it’s losing money, you’ve got to get out of it,” said Caldwell Parish Sheriff Steve May. “Since the economy got bad and the cost of everything’s gone up, we haven’t been able to funnel money to the department. It’s been just strictly to keep the prisons going.”
A private company is more adaptable than a law enforcement agency with a single prison enterprise, and the McConnells are not worried. Their pipelines from the New Orleans metro area are so well-established that Jackson Parish Warden Tim Ducote does not call Jefferson Parish. Rather, Jefferson calls him to announce that a busload of inmates is ready to be shipped up north.
A drop in the incarceration rate could spell doom for both LaSalle Corrections and the sheriffs. The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association lobbies extensively on its members’ behalf and funds campaigns through a related political action committee. Private prison companies have the resources to be major political donors themselves. With strategically placed contributions, they can influence legislation as well as potentially steer inmates to their own prisons.
In the past decade, LaSalle and the McConnells have donated about $31,000 to campaigns, including $10,000 to Gov. Bobby Jindal and numerous contributions to north Louisiana state legislators. LCS and its owners have thrown much more cash at politicians — about $120,000 since 1999.
Some of LCS’s donations are to urban sheriffs who have a surplus of state-sentenced inmates and can choose where to send the overflow. LCS gave East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux the maximum, $5,000, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for a total of $15,000. About 3,100 Baton Rouge residents are currently incarcerated throughout the state, while Gautreaux’s own prison has room for only 1,800.
Pat LeBlanc, one of LCS’s founders, ran unsuccessfully for Lafayette-area state representative before dying in a plane crash in 2008. His brother, Michael LeBlanc, continues as the chief executive. LCS has run into corruption allegations in Texas, but a spokesman said the Louisiana operations have not had any issues.
If worse comes to worst, the McConnells will get into the more lucrative business of housing federal and out-of-state inmates, which they have already been doing to some extent. They are quick to seize on expansion opportunities.
When Jindal floated a short-lived proposal to sell two state prisons, LaSalle’s bid included the option of closing those facilities and moving the inmates to existing LaSalle properties. The company is angling to open a 1,000-bed facility in Arizona, where the detention of illegal immigrants is a growth industry. Jindal’s new plan to privatize the state-run Avoyelles Correctional Center presents a golden opportunity for experienced prison operators like LaSalle.
Clay McConnell will not discuss LaSalle’s balance sheets, but the family business exists to make money.
“I’m not running a nonprofit,” he said.
Money For Rehabilitation
Local prisons undergo annual inspections and are required to comply with the Department of Correction’s Basic Jail Guidelines. Beyond that, they are so loosely regulated that even Secretary of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc is having trouble getting a handle on the daily transfers of inmates among facilities.
According to a review of inspection reports for the state’s 100-some local prisons, physical conditions are usually adequate, if basic. A major exception is Orleans Parish Prison, an aging, understaffed facility where violence and substandard living conditions are endemic. Following multiple lawsuits and withering criticism from federal authorities, Sheriff Marlin Gusman recently closed one building, the House of Detention, which housed over 600 inmates.
Prisons dating from the 1990s boom are new enough to still be in good shape physically. Prison officials, inmates and former inmates say the main problem is the lack of constructive activities, which not only engenders stifling boredom but leaves prisoners ill-prepared to re-enter society when they are released. Many sheriffs say they would gladly offer more programs, but they need more money from the state to do so.
In part because of their religious bent, the McConnells are more focused on rehabilitation than many local prison operators and are willing to set aside a portion of their profits for that aim. The relationship is sometimes symbiotic: Offering the Blue Walters substance-abuse rehab program, as LaSalle does, fills beds with inmates even as it only consumes 60 hours of their lengthy stays.
Clay McConnell may want to show his charges the right path, but there is no disguising that these are bare-bones operations. The $24.39 per diem is by far the lowest that any state spends on prisoners. Out of that, LaSalle must not only turn a profit but divvy up the money with its public-sector partners. At Richwood Correctional Center, a row of classrooms is shuttered, awaiting teachers and books.
One of LeBlanc’s signature initiatives is the 100-hour job and life skills curriculum known as re-entry, which is offered to all inmates leaving state prisons. He said he hopes the 53 percent of inmates serving their time in local prisons will someday go through the program, too.
But at a time when budget cuts have forced him to leave guard towers at the Angola state penitentiary unmanned, finding money is like squeezing the proverbial blood from a stone. Lowering the incarceration rate would free up some cash, but the political winds do not seem to be blowing in that direction.
LeBlanc, always careful to praise the sheriffs as important “partners,” said he would like to see a smaller prison population, with more resources devoted to those who remain behind bars. Under that scenario, sheriffs would continue to house state prisoners, receiving higher payments in return for providing more rehabilitation.
LeBlanc has also hinted that he might implement a centralized system for distributing inmates among local prisons, ending the daily horse trading that goes on below the radar.
In the past few months, Department of Corrections officials have begun to regulate the locations of inmates from Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
“You have to understand that, politically, it has a lot to do with the politics side,” LeBlanc said of the sheriffs. “Economically, it means a lot to their parish. They use that money for patrols. It helps their parish and public safety to have extra funds. You can’t knock them for that, and that’s why we’ve got to do it in partnership.”