By Matt Clarke
Unique circumstances have combined to make northern Louisiana a prime location for private prisons, as Louisiana sheriffs can profit by letting a private company build and operate facilities that house both local prisoners and prisoners from other jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, other parish prisons – especially those in the densely-populated southern part of the state – and Louisiana’s state prisons are severely overcrowded and provide a steady stream of prisoners to fill the for-profit facilities in the north.
Currently, over half of the state’s approximately 40,000 prisoners are incarcerated in local parish prisons, which are operated by sheriffs or a private company.
It costs the state an average $55 per day to house a prisoner in a state facility. Yet the state pays sheriffs a mere $24.39 per diem to house state prisoners in parish prisons. When factoring in private prison companies’ need to generate profit from the meager per diem rate, plus a cut for the sheriffs, it is easy to see that despite the state spending $182 million annually to house prisoners in local facilities, very little of that amount is spent on rehabilitative programs and services for those prisoners.
Yet sheriffs, and the private prison companies they contract with, manage to make money by building facilities that are larger than needed and filling them with prisoners from other parishes, or sometimes other states.
A Prison Company is Born
Warden Alan Cupp of the Richland Parish Detention Center (RPDC) in Mangham, Louisiana, a town with a non-prisoner population of 672, calls the approximately 800 beds in his jail his “honey holes.” When they are full the honey flows nicely – in a good year, the facility generates up to $700,000 in revenue.
But the RPDC almost wasn’t built. Despite the need, a sheriff has no ability to raise taxes to pay for jail construction. Thus, when the economically disadvantaged parish was suffering from falling cotton prices, it must have seemed like a godsend when two groups of investors, including a local pastor, a pharmacist and a local businessman named Billy McConnell, came up with funding for a $3.5 million women’s prison, which has since expanded to include a men’s unit and is now a cornerstone of the parish’s economy.
McConnell seems an unlikely founder of a private prison firm. In the mid-1990s he was running a company owned by his family and the family of his brother-in-law, Pat Temple. That company had extensive experience in financing and building schools, fire stations and nursing homes. Then, a federal court ordered Louisiana officials to reduce the number of prisoners in its dismally overcrowded prison system, sparking a prison-building boom in northern Louisiana. This led McConnell to an epiphany.
“We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You need to treat people fairly and run a good ship, but run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs,” said Billy’s son, Clay McConnell, 37, an ordained minister who helps his father run the family’s prison business.
This realization motivated Billy McConnell to successfully bid on the construction of a prison in Alexandria, Louisiana. That contract led to others and a decision to not just build but also operate correctional facilities. As a result, LaSalle Corrections was born.
When Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown was first elected in 2004, the parish jail was the top floor of a courthouse built in the 1930s. He had run on a platform of building a new jail, and soon realized that the wisest move would be to build a large facility that housed more prisoners, to maximize the state’s per diem payments. But Brown had no way to finance the construction of such a project.
LaSalle was Brown’s answer to that dilemma. LaSalle Corrections built a $15 million, 1,147-bed facility, the Jackson Parish Correctional Center (JPCC). Since only government entities are allowed to hold state prisoners, LaSalle pays Brown $100,000 a year as a “sponsor fee” to operate the jail under his authority. The sheriff now has extra money and a convenient place to house his pretrial detainees.
Even more important to Brown, apparently, is political patronage. LaSalle pays the prison employees’ salaries but Brown has the authority to hire and fire them. With around 130 staff members at the facility, that’s a significant bonus in an impoverished parish with a population of 16,000. And it has paid off politically; Sheriff Brown was unopposed for reelection in 2011.
“There’s a lot of patronage here by hiring all these people. It’s good for a rural community,” he 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.”
He also gets to deal with headaches when things go wrong, though. On July 5, 2011, two JPCC prisoners, Arnol Suazo and Olvin Aguilar, scaled a razor wire-covered fence and fled when they were taking trash out in the morning. They were reportedly the 15th and 16th escapees from LaSalle-managed facilities since 2004. The pair was captured six days later.
“We had the dogs after them,” said Billy McConnell, LaSalle’s managing director, “and it rained and we lost the trail; if it hadn’t been for the rain we would have caught them earlier.”
Profiting from Prisoners
The McConnell family has steadily expanded their business until now one in seven Louisiana prisoners is held in a LaSalle-owned or operated facility, including a quarter of all offenders incarcerated in parish prisons.
LaSalle’s Louisiana facilities are concentrated in the northern part of the state. In addition to RPDC and JPCC, the company operates the Catahoula Correctional Center, Claiborne Parish Detention Center, LaSalle Correctional Center, Lincoln Parish Detention Center, Richwood Correctional Center and River Correctional Center. Two other private prison firms operate local correctional facilities in Louisiana, too – LCS Corrections and Emerald Prison Enterprises.
LaSalle also has four jails in Texas – the Burnet County Jail, Polk Street Jail, Johnson County Law Enforcement Center and Jefferson County Downtown Jail – which it operates under an affiliate, LaSalle Southwest Corrections. The company manages all but one of its facilities, which it leases to a law enforcement agency, and has a total capacity of about 7,700 beds. It is one of the nation’s smaller private prison firms, holding an estimated 3.8 percent of the private prison market in 2011. [See: PLN, Oct. 2011, p.1].
Like many private prison contractors, LaSalle tends to build facilities in rural areas where they are used as a form of economic development and a source for jobs. For example, the largest revenue source in Richland Parish, Louisiana is a 1/2¢ sales tax. The second-largest is LaSalle Correction’s RPDC.
“I hate to make money off the back of some unfortunate person,” said former Sheriff McDonald, who left office in 2012. “The fact is, somebody’s going to keep them, and it might as well be Richland Parish.”
The impact RPDC has had in the local community cannot be overstated. There is always a backlog of applications for the 100 jobs at the prison, despite the fact that entry-level guards earn low wages. Literally everyone in Richland Parish knows someone who works at the facility, and the sheriff has used his cut of the profits to hire additional employees, purchase “more equipment than we know what to do with,” including squad cars, shotguns and bulletproof vests, and amass an impressive $1.5 million surplus.
To keep the facility profitable, Warden Alan Cupp, like other northern Louisiana parish wardens, makes regular phone calls to customers, hoping to drum up business. His customers include the prisoner-rich, jail-bed poor urban Louisiana parishes where cities such as New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport are located.
Is the revenue that LaSalle Corrections and the sheriffs receive for operating for-profit jails beneficial to the prisoners as well? In a word, no. The low per diem rate paid by the state means that little money is spent on programs and resources to help prisoners learn skills that can keep them out of prison. This means that many of LaSalle’s prisoners spend years in warehouse-like conditions with little opportunity to partake in vocational, educational and life skills courses that could assist them upon their release.
“For the sheriffs, [the money from housing out-of-parish prisoners] became like heroin, that became a regular source of income for them,” said Buck Foster, an expert on Louisiana’s prisons and a former professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. “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.”
Since local parish prisons don’t hold violent criminals as long-term prisoners, people who have not been convicted of serious crimes have a small chance of landing at a state prison like Angola, Hunt or Dixon, which offer rehabilitation programs and vocational training.
Considering that 11,000 of the 15,000 prisoners released each year in Louisiana come from local facilities, that means most have not participated in educational or other rehabilitative programs while incarcerated. This in turn most likely contributes to higher recidivism rates, and helps to explain why Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the nation.
Worse still, a state prisoner who has taken a vocational course might be traded by the state prison system to a local parish warden who needs a prisoner with that skill set. Thus, a prisoner who pursues vocational training in a state prison that could help him upon his release may be shuffled off to a rural parish facility with no programs, far from his family, where he is basically warehoused.
“I know it sounds crazy and impersonal, moving humans around, but we’re stuck with this jail,” said former Richland Parish Sheriff McDonald. “We can’t walk away. We’ve got investors, employees.” That sounds like a concise argument against private prisons, coming from someone who is professionally and economically dependent on one.
“It’s not like just warehousing. We are providing a lot of programs for [the] $24.39 [in state per diem payments],” argued Michael Ranatza, director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. However, “as costs continue to rise, that’s what they’re faced with – you’re getting a lot of them operating right on the edge,” he acknowledged.
Unfortunately, the current situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The sheriffs and local economies have simply become too dependent on the profit from parish prisons to permit a change. This even effects how the state prison and criminal justice system is run.
“It makes it hard to do reforms that lower the prison population, because you’re affecting the local economic engines that they provide,” noted national prison expert James Austin, who has conducted in-depth studies of the Orleans Parish Prison. “It would be different if everybody were in state facilities. It’s a lot easier for the state to close a state facility than for a state to close several small local facilities that provide economic fuel at the local level.”
While in office, Sheriff McDonald came up with an idea to keep him in the Louisiana DOC’s good graces and ensure a flow of prisoners to RPDC – providing daily GED classes. RPDC also offers a 100-hour reentry curriculum that teaches prisoners how to manage money, behave during job interviews and deal with other situations they may face upon release. A similar program has long been standard fare in the state prison system but it is new for RPDC, where prisoners were previously released with only $10 and a bus ticket.
Unfortunately, rehabilitative programs in local parish prisons are the exception, not the rule. And the reasoning behind the GED and reentry classes at RPDC was McDonald’s desire to maintain a good relationship with the DOC so they continued to send prisoners his way. State prison officials say they encourage sheriffs to offer such programs, but cannot compel them to do so and don’t have the money to fund rehabilitative programs in local facilities that house state prisoners.
This lack of funding shows up in other areas, too. Former RPDC prisoners have criticized conditions at the facility and the fact that many of them are incarcerated hundreds of miles from their homes and families.
“They bird-feed you,” said Jeremiah Kelly, 37, who was incarcerated for 3½ years at RPDC. He was a trusty and able to leave the facility daily to mow grass and perform other work, and thus fared much better than the average RPDC prisoner who is basically locked in a cell block all day. Regardless, he described the prison environment as one of “tear gas, Mace, fighting and rioting,” all while “the sheriff acted like he knew nothing about it.”
RPDC spends $1.48 per day to feed a female prisoner and $1.78 for a male. This means that the diet largely consists of cheap staples like beans, rice and cornbread. McDonald denied any rioting at the facility but admitted there are fights.
“Any prison that has that many inmates is going to have problems at some point. I don’t think we’re out of line with anywhere else,” he said.
Problems in Private Prison Paradise
Compared to some of the issues LaSalle has had at other facilities, RPDC seems almost like a model prison. For example, the company’s Burnet County Jail in Texas has had problems almost from the day it opened in April 2009.
Burnet County officials ignored broad opposition to constructing the $23 million, 587-bed jail when it initially negotiated with LaSalle Southwest Corrections. Four months after opening ceremonies were concluded, the facility experienced its first escape. Nuana Antonio Fuentes-Sanchez, 25, who was being held on home invasion charges, absconded from the jail in August 2009, stole a gun from a nearby home and remained at large for two years.
An investigation into the circumstances of the escape led jail inspectors to discover that the facility was non-compliant with Texas jail standards and that LaSalle employees had shown “a lack of diligence, a lack of professionalism.” Inspectors also found that LaSalle apparently had not been providing medical care to a pregnant prisoner, did not give prescribed medications to prisoners or provide them with recreation time, and had not submitted an emergency response plan.
“We went on to check the log to see if their concerns were valid,” said Adan Munoz, then-executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). “We couldn’t even find a recreation log.”
In 2011 there was another escape from the Burnet County Jail. This time, Johnny Angel Ybarra, 40, broke out by using a handicap hand-rail as a tool to chisel through the cinder block wall under a sink; he then climbed to where he could exit the facility via a skylight. Ybarra left a lump under the blanket on his mattress and guards did not realize he was missing until they came to feed him breakfast.
Ybarra, who had recently received three life sentences, was recaptured just hours after he escaped.
Following that incident, Burnet County Sheriff W. T. Smith assigned former Harris County Sheriff’s Department Captain Bill Eppler to monitor the jail; he was the only Sheriff’s employee at the facility. The Burnet County Commissioners Court criticized Smith, but he promptly put the blame on LaSalle, and LaSalle officials agreed.
“It’s on us,” said Warden Bruce Zeller. “Like the sheriff said, the responsibility is on LaSalle Corrections, our facility, and our employees.”
Texas state officials declined to renew their contract to house prisoners at the facility, and as of August 2011 it was operating at just 53% capacity.
The Burnet County Jail subsequently failed a state inspection in March 2012, which found it was “non-compliant” with security requirements. The TCJS noted there were “deficiencies” in concrete blocks and reinforcement bars in some of the cells used to house handicapped prisoners. Ybarra had escaped from one of those cells, where he had been placed due to overcrowding.
Until recently, officials in Harris County, Texas had an agreement with LaSalle to house local Houston-area prisoners in one of the company’s Louisiana prisons. For five years, the nation’s third-largest jail system shipped up to 1,200 of its prisoners hundreds of miles away to the LaSalle facility and another for-profit jail operated by Emerald Prison Enterprises; in 2010 and 2011, Harris County spent $30 million to house prisoners in Louisiana and other facilities in Texas.
There was once a weekly chain bus between the Harris County Jail and the LaSalle Correctional Center in Louisiana, 238 miles away. After a five-hour drive, new prisoners from Texas would be swapped for those returning to Harris County, and the whole process would repeat itself. It was a seven-hour trip to the Emerald facility. What caused the chain bus route to stop at the end of 2011 was a drop in the Harris County jail system’s daily population. Instead of an average daily population in excess of 12,000, the population decreased to below the maximum capacity of 9,434.
The jail population dropped 31% over a three-year period due to a decision by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos not to bring felony charges against people arrested for trace amounts of drugs, such as residue on a crack pipe. That alone reduced the average daily jail population by 400 prisoners.
Lykos and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia also introduced an early release program for nonviolent prisoners who participated in educational or vocational programs, and created a diversion program for mentally ill prisoners.
The cancellation of Harris County’s contract with LaSalle Corrections hurt the company’s bottom line. If it remains permanent, LaSalle will have to shop around for other customers. This is one example of how criminal justice policies that successfully reduce prison and jail populations can negatively impact private prison companies, which rely on a steady stream of prisoners to make money.
“We’ll recoup, but it hit us pretty hard when they left,” stated LaSalle Correctional Center Warden Jeff Windham. The company pays a $120,000 annual fee to LaSalle Parish, and thus needs to generate revenue to cover that cost as well as generate profit.
Beyond escapes and canceled contracts, LaSalle has experienced problems at its facilities related to employee misconduct. In November 2008, the warden of the LaSalle Correctional Center, Leroy Holliday, Sr., 55, was booked into the LaSalle Parish Jail on a malfeasance charge for allegedly using prisoners and prison employees for personal ventures. He was also LaSalle’s regional warden for facilities in Catahoula, Concordia and Ouachita parishes. Holliday’s law enforcement commission was revoked following his arrest. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.42].
On April 7, 2011, Joseph Taunton, 32, a former guard at the LaSalle Correctional Center, pleaded guilty to engaging in a sex act with a prisoner; he was sentenced in July 2011 to 10 months in prison and will have to register as a sex offender. Taunton admitted to entering the prisoner’s cell while on duty and engaging in sexual activity.
And on July 14, 2011, LaSalle employee Amy Sue Lancaster, 40, was arrested after she confessed to investigators that she had engaged in sexual acts with a prisoner at the Johnson County Law Enforcement Center in Texas. She was charged with violating the civil rights of a person in custody.
More Prisons, More Money
LaSalle Corrections has been trying to expand its private prison operations, and negotiated with Grayson County, Texas to build a new $34 million, 750-bed jail in 2009, although the deal didn’t work out.
“I think it’s time to stop the for-profit, private option and return to the basic concept of expanding the [public] jail downtown,” stated Grayson County Sheriff Keith Gary, who initially supported privatizing the facility. He said he wanted to “avoid the pitfalls we have learned exist with a private corporation.”
LaSalle recently obtained permission from the Johnson County, Texas Commissioners Court to build a 96-bed, $1.5 million expansion at the Johnson County Law Enforcement Center that will hold federal ICE detainees. LaSalle officials told the commissioners that the expansion would increase annual jail revenues by $600,000.
The company also recently tried to enter the Arizona market by submitting a bid for a contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections to house 1,500 state prisoners. Such a move might seem unlikely considering the fact that the three other private prison firms competing for the contract – CCA, GEO Group and MTC – are three to ten times larger than LaSalle. But the company has been nothing if not ambitious. The Arizona contract was ultimately awarded to CCA in August 2012.
Additionally, LaSalle is part of NH Hunt Justice Groups, a consortium of businesses, including construction, architectural and design firms, that bid on a proposed private prison in New Hampshire in 2012. Given a change in state leadership in the last elections, however, it appears that the proposed private prison contract will not go through, though it remains pending.
And when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced in 2011 that he wanted to sell off several of the state’s prisons to private companies, LaSalle Corrections submitted a bid, although the legislature later nixed the idea. The company had reportedly made a prior $10,000 contribution to Jindal’s campaign.
Clearly, a family-run private prison firm is just as bad as a large publicly-traded corporation such as CCA or GEO Group. It makes no sense to mix a profit motive into the governmental function of incarceration, which can only lead to worse treatment of prisoners, perversion of the public safety aspect of imprisonment, and a desire to put more people in prison in order to make more money. Nothing is free in this world, yet public officials seem to overlook that maxim when companies like LaSalle promise lucrative revenue in exchange for building and operating prisons and jails.
As LaSalle Corrections executive Clay McConnell put it, “I’m not running a nonprofit.”
Sources: New Orleans Times-Picayune, American Friends Service Committee, Arizona Republic, Cleburne Times-Review, www.dailytrib.com, www.texasprisonbidness.com, www.kxan.com, www.kvue.com, Star-Telegram, www.nhbr.com, www.yourhoustonnews.com, www.lasallecorrections.com, www.kten.com, www.gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)