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READ MORE: Bryn Stole's reporting on criminal justice reform in Louisiana for the New Orleans Advocate.
For decades, Louisiana incarcerated more people per-capita than anywhere else on Earth, and more than half of the state's inmates are now held in sheriff-run jails. But a major overhaul to Louisiana's criminal justice system is shifting the focus to rehabilitation. Joanne Elgart Jennings has our story, reported in conjunction with Bryn Stole at the New Orleans Advocate and PBS's Independent Lens.
Joanne Elgart Jennings:
Every Tuesday, a bus load of newly sentenced inmates from New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish arrives at this state prison. This is their entry point into the sprawling Louisiana prison system. They're here in Cottonport about 90 minutes northwest of Baton Rouge, only briefly, for screening and orientation.
We're going to have our nurse practitioner come look at you. Do you take any medicines?
You don't have any kind of medicine?
And you said 10th grade was the highest grade you went to. Did you take any special education classes?
Many of those arriving lack education.Or come in with long histories of addiction.
If you're a drug addict, you're not going to keep your job. You're going to lose your job. Okay? So once you lose your job, there's really only two ways to get drugs. That's steal for it or sell it to make the drug free. It doesn't mean I'm a big drug dealer that's riding around in a fancy car and putting money in my pocket. Cause I didn't. I was homeless. I had no car, I had nothing.
Forty-four-year-old Craig Leblanc is serving a ten year sentence for possession of meth with intent to distribute. He's hoping to be placed in a state facility that offers drug rehab and educational programs. But odds are high that he'll do his time in a local jail not equipped for that.
A sentence that you spend in a local jail or prison is a sentence that probably comes with very little programming. It comes with very little opportunities to take courses on anger management or to get your GED. It means that the odds are high that you will not get routine medical care.
Jamila Johnson is a managing attorney at the Promise of Justice Initiative. It's a non-profit that advocates for criminal justice reforms.
The odds are high that you won't get appropriate dental care. If you have a mental illness, the odds are very high that there will be no one there who will talk to you about your mental illness, treat your mental illness, or provide whatever you were being provided on the outside.
Today, more than half the people convicted of crimes in Louisiana are held in parish prisons. The state pays local sheriffs $25 a day for each person they incarcerate.
That means that the sheriff's are incentivized to A, house as many people as they can to increase the revenue and B, provide the minimum level of services that they need to, to increase the profit.
Katie Schwartzmann is legal director at the ACLU of Louisiana.
So it means that because the sheriff's kind of benefit from the Department of Corrections payment, the conditions in those parish jails have traditionally been really terrible.
Jimmy LeBlanc, a former warden, is Louisiana's Secretary of Corrections. He says $25 a-day is simply not enough to provide anything beyond the bare minimum.
At $25 a day, you basically can, I call it lock-and-feed. Lock and feed is basically they have the funding to be able to clothe them, be able to provide food for them, be able to, to house them and provide security. When somebody comes into our system, they're in a grade level of somewhere around the seventh grade. That's the average grade level when we get them. So obviously they have failed in our education system, in so then we get em and we expect to create miracles and we certainly not going to do it at $25 a day.
In 2017, Governor John Bell Edwards, a Democrat, worked with the Republican controlled legislature to pass a major criminal justice reform package. Through targeted releases, greater access to parole and probation, and investment in alternatives to incarceration, the prison population has dropped about 13 percent. From nearly 36-thousand inmates in 2017 to fewer than 32 thousand today. In the process, the state has saved about $35 million dollars. Corrections Secretary LeBlanc is now reinvesting a portion of the savings in programs designed to keep people from returning to prison.
We can't expect people to come to prison and be dropped back off on the corners and expect them to succeed. It's just, it's not going to happen. And we've, we're changing that and that, that is a big part of our reform efforts.
And one of those reform efforts is here. At the southernmost tip of Louisiana, in Plaquemines Parish, the Department of Corrections is piloting a new re-entry program. The Plaquemines Parish Detention Center is an 800-bed jail, it was built with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the old lockup. For years, it stood vacant. Now, prisoners who normally would be scattered across dozens of jails in rural stretches of the state are being brought together here. It's closer to the communities in and around New Orleans, where most will eventually be released. On top of the $25-per-day that the Department of Corrections pays the sheriff for each prisoner here, it's providing an additional $1.2 million for rehabilitative programming that includes courses on anger management and substance abuse.
So we were discussing last week about the different effects, the biological. Education is key. So the first thing is to get these guys educated.
Capt. Byron Williams heads up the re-entry program for the sheriff's department.
Education is key. The first thing is to get these guys educated. If they do not have a high school diploma or GED, we make sure that we get them into those classes first.
There's also vocational training designed to teach in demand trades and eventually match former prisoners with jobs on the outside.
The first thing you do is unplug your tools. Never work with a plugged in power tool. Anybody know what this is? Nobody? A jigsaw.
We just really trying to help guys move forward, really change their thought process on how to get work and get money without being illegal.
When we met Nosayaba Okunseri, he had served five years of a twelve year sentence for bank fraud and identity theft. He bounced between 6 different local jails before ending up here in Plaquemines Parish.
This the best I've been, thus far as far as programming, help, one-on-one with the case managers.
Okunseri, who has since been released, told us he was grateful he learned skills he would likely use on the outside. Word is now out among inmates throughout the state; Many are asking to be transferred to Plaquemines Correctional Center where they think they may have a better shot at the future.
It's a renowned, good re-entry program to participate in, not only for the, exemplary good programs that are here that actually help you but also for the good time. Cause it, you know, at the end of the day, you know, we all want that good time to go home as soon as possible.
Michel Sosa-Santiesteban is about two years into a 12-year prison sentence for burglary. So far, he's served time in eleven different parish jails.
Michel Sosa Santiesteban:
If you're lucky you go to a parish jail which is calm, where there's zero tolerance, where there is, you know, zero violating, you know, there's a, a zero violence. Um, but if you're unlucky, you go to a place where you get no rest, you get no sleep and your expected level of security is non-existent. You know, there are not officers like these that are on top of the ball. Like since we've come in here, these officers are aware of everything, of every place, of every move that is being made by us here.
These people that come to prison are coming back. That's what the public needs to understand. And if, if they want them to come back, where they can be on their feet and earn a living and pay taxes and support their family, then they need to understand that we need to invest in this system.
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