When Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, it created immense damage to anything unfortunate enough to be in its path, but it was the subsequent flooding that wreaked the most havoc on those that remained in the city.
After levees broke at the Industrial Canal and the 17th Street Canal, some areas were flooded with several feet of water. Homes were submerged to their roof lines, businesses were gutted and thousands were stranded. The city’s correctional facilities, although built to withstand hurricane-force winds, were also subjected to widespread damage.
After the floodwaters damaged emergency generators and cut off power, the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office faced a dire situation. Nearly 6,000 inmates had to be evacuated from facilities throughout the city that were inundated with water. The department needed help and soon, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections stepped in to coordinate the relocation process.
Facility Name: Bossier Parish Maximum Security Jail
Inmates were shipped off to different facilities in the region that had extra space, including a new maximum-security jail in Bossier Parish, located in the northwest corner of the state far from Katrina’s wrath, that was on the verge of opening. It wasn’t the most ideal way to open the facility, but when Sheriff Larry Dean got the call for help, he couldn’t say no.
“We work real well with the department and they were in a nine-yard bind,” Dean says. “They were setting up tent cities in their prison yards and we believed that we needed to help them.”
Dean received approval from the parish’s police jury — similar to a county commission — and within a matter of days, the facility went from being totally vacant to housing 500 inmates.
“It was functional and operational, but we hadn’t put the first person in it yet,” says Bill Altimus, parish administrator. “We learned real quick as to whether or not it was going to be effective. Like I told the jury, after these people got here, if the next day you heard they were chasing people through the woods like rabbits, then you know things didn’t go to well.”
Fortunately for all parties involved, no such emergencies were reported.
Planning Before Disaster
Before Katrina hit and spurred the mass exodus out of the New Orleans area, Bossier Parish was the fifth fastest-growing parish in the state and the fastest-growing parish north of Interstate 10, the horizontal artery that passes through the state’s capital in the southern portion of the state Louisiana.
“Due to the tremendous growth, we really needed to revamp a maximum-security prison,” Altimus says.
The facility in use at that time was built in the 1970s on the fifth floor of the courthouse in Benton and it was reaching the end of its lifespan. The jail was quickly becoming overcrowded and outmoded.
“It had caused really nothing but problems,” Altimus says. “They really didn’t design it well as far as transportation of judges and prisoners. At the time it was probably state of the art, but there are really better ways to do things now, and it was small.”
Officials received support from the public for the new facility in the form of a voter-approved $40 million bond measure that provided $27 million for jail construction. The other funds were used for courthouse renovations.
“Not everyone wants a prison built next door to them,” Dean says. “But, people came forward and said, ‘We look at it as economic development and it will be something that is good for our community.’”
The facility was built at a complex in Plain Dealing, where a 600-bed medium-security facility, 250-bed minimum-security facility and 100-bed work release center owned by the parish are located. In addition, the sheriff’s office owns a 550-bed prison in the area that holds state prisoners.
“With the new facility and all three of the corrections pods we have in the prison system, and the work release center, I really think that we’ve created a good 10-year window that will work to be a part of the arm of the infrastructure of corrections,” Dean says.
Simplicity in Design
The simplicity of the maximum-security jail’s design and open lines of sight were two factors that contributed greatly to the successful relocation of New Orleans inmates to the facility.
“The controls were so easy and the visibility was so good, it made it work when a different design wouldn’t have been nearly so easy,” says Jerry Hebert of Grace & Herbert Architects, which worked on the project with APAC and Coyle Engineering.
The facility was designed so that from central control, prison operators can monitor the entire facility, including outdoor exercise yards. Housing pods equipped with video visitation, classrooms and their own outdoor exercise facilities eliminate the need for inmates to leave their pod once they are admitted.
Hebert says the success of the design can partly be attributed to a computer program that allowed jail operators to visualize the facility.
“We computer modeled the whole facility during the design process and gave them sight lines, which was a great tool for somebody who doesn’t do architecture every day.”
By using the computer model, planners were able to make adjustments based on feedback from jail officials.
“Obviously, it’s not possible to see everything all the time, so we prioritized what was important to them,” Hebert says.
Video visitation is a concept new to the parish that was implemented to limit opportunities to bring contraband into the facility. Hebert says his firm usually designs video visitation stations for visitors within the facility, but Bossier officials opted to have the visiting stations in a separate building.
“In most facilities we don’t do a separate building,” Hebert says. “Contraband was a big issue with this particular sheriff, so we gave him another option and he actually proceeded in that direction.”
The new system has spurred resistance from inmates at the facility who are not happy about not having face-to-face contact with visitors.
“The inmates don’t like it — not having contact and seeing their visitors right there — but it has worked,” says Ken Weaver, Bossier chief deputy of corrections. “All visitation is conducted with the video in the pod, so the inmate can go into the pod and once he’s been sentenced he never has to leave the pod unless he goes to medical or any activity that we might have inside for him.”
The facility is also outfitted with a wireless communication system that allowed the parish to save money during construction.
“We looked at putting down copper or T1 lines, but they are always being cut and it’s a very large expense for each line,” Altimus says.
Big Day at the Big House
With all of the systems in place at the facility in late August, in theory, it was ready to open. However, instead of taking two months to test control systems, outfit the jail with supplies and gradually bring inmates into the facility, officials had about two days to prepare for 500 inmates.
Jail officials were able to contact their distributors and have rush orders for 300 mattresses, kitchen supplies and other necessities delivered to the jail, but the parish still only had about 40 percent of the staff needed to operate the facility.
The parish brought in all the people it could to operate the jail and the state prison agency brought prison workers from other parts of the state to Bossier, along with some parole and probation officers.
“We had some people who had never worked in a facility — probation and parole officers,” Weaver says. “We put them through a quick course on how things operate.”
To help with daily operations, such as general upkeep, cooking and laundry, 38 inmates were brought in from other Bossier facilities.
When the New Orleans inmates eventually arrived at the facility a new problem emerged — there was no paperwork providing identity information or the nature of the offense for which inmates were convicted.
“When all those inmates came to use, they came in uniforms and that was it,” Weaver says. “Some had wristbands identifying them, but that didn’t tell us anything. We weren’t familiar with the system used where they came from.”
Through the use of Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems, jail officials were able to identify all of the inmates within about a week.
After the inmates were identified, it was relatively smooth sailing for officials at the jail until the New Orleans prisoners started to filter out of the facility as they were relocated or released.
“We started receiving some relief toward the end of September,” Weaver says. “We ended up transferring some inmates out to other facilities. They just kind of dwindled out.”
As New Orleans inmates left the Bossier facility, operations gradually shifted to normal procedures. Officials were able to make adjustments to improve the facility that could not have been made during the initial rush of inmates.
“We didn’t have the luxury of coming in here and slowly opening one pod and seeing, as a team, how things worked,” Weaver says. “At first there was some different management issues going on in each pod until we pulled them back together.”
Although Weaver says he is happy with the general design and operations at the facility, if he were to do the project over again he would add a segregation unit for the 128 females housed at the facility.
Unlike the men’s portion of the jail, which is equipped with 32 segregation units, when women have to be locked down the only option jail operators have is to lock them down in their cell in the housing pod.
“When we’ve got them in segregation, it’s very minimal movement in that area,” Weaver says. “In the pod, when you lock them down there is still movement out in the day room and other inmates can approach them and talk to them through the hatches.”
But after all is said and done, Weaver says the jail’s performance in the wake of Katrina speaks for itself. Only two other facilities accepted more inmates than Bossier Parish: Angola and Hunt penitentiaries, both operated by Louisiana’s prison agency.
“It was a challenge and we accepted it and did a good job,” Weaver says. “We took pride in that, knowing that they could call on us like that.”