State's decision to close Phelps a surprise to local, state officials

Published: Sep. 14, 2012 at 7:57 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 14, 2012 at 9:42 PM CDT
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DEQUINCY, LA (KPLC) - An announcement Friday by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections to close C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy came as a surprise to local and state officials.

The prison population at the 942-bed, medium security facility will be consolidated to other correctional facilities, primarily the Louisiana State Penitentiary and Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, according to state officials.

James LeBlanc, Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary, told the Associated Press Friday that by November, the prison should be empty.

"We'll gradually move over the next couple of months and hopefully by November we'll have it empty. We're prepared to move as quickly as we need to move," LeBlanc said.

Cuts to state prisons were debated heavily this legislative session in Baton Rouge, but at the close of the session, money was outlined in the state's budget for Phelps' operation.

"Phelps was never in that mix and that's why it's such a surprise," said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, who sits on the House Appropriations panel and is a member of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Ten PCC staff members will be retained to provide jail monitoring and pre-classification services for Department of Corrections offenders housed on the local level in the six-parish Southwest Louisiana region, according to a news release from state prison officials.

State officials say that 92 of the remaining 259 positions will be transferred to other state correctional facilities "to accommodate the increase in offender population, mostly security positions at Louisiana State Penitentiary," the release states.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission will assist with job placement for the remaining employees, officials say.

However, state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said it will be difficult for people to move their families elsewhere.

"How many actual employees will be able to move their families like that? This is very frustrating," Johns said. "This was an administrative decision, apparently. I have no details."

State Rep. James K. Armes, D-Leesville, called the announcement "another short-sighted decision from the Jindal administration." Armes also sits on the House Appropriations Committee and on the state's joint money panel.

"Governor Jindal's administration has already darn near shut down Moss Regional Hospital in Lake Charles, and now this. The pain from the administration's actions continues to be felt by businesses, working families and families who will have to travel farther to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Where is all of this going to stop? This stinks to high heaven and I am about fed up with what's happening to the people of my district," Armes said.

DeQuincy Mayor Lawrence Henagan said the consolidation is "a devastating blow to Southwest Louisiana."

Henagan said Phelps' inmates do work in municipalities across Southwest Louisiana as part of agreements inked between the state, cities and towns. He said no one from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections called to inform local officials of the decision.

"There was no hint of this … no discussion, no talk of anything on this until they called and dropped the bombshell today," Henagan said.

Geymann said he received the news in a phone call Friday afternoon from LeBlanc. Legislation is not needed to close the prison, but Geymann said local and state officials should have been able to participate in discussions.

"We haven't been included in this discussion. We haven't talked about other options. It's a total surprise," Geymann said.

Officials said that a decision to consolidate the offender population at Phelps was made "as department continues to implement cost-saving measures and streamline operations," the release said.   

Officials in the release said the decision allows for "continued participation in education and reentry programming (such as literacy and GED classes and vocational skills including carpentry, welding, plumbing and automotive technology)."

Officials said the PCC offenders placed at Louisiana State Penitentiary "will be housed separately from offenders with life sentences. As offenders release, vacancies will be filled by the same type of offenders as would traditionally be placed at PCC." 

According to state officials, the consolidation will result in a savings of more than $2.6 million in the current fiscal year and an estimated $11.85 million in FY 13-14.

PCC was reportedly chosen for consolidation because the offenders there can be accommodated at other facilities easily since PCC does not house maximum security offenders or offenders in infirmary beds.

The release also states that PCC "has a high cost per day for each offender, and this consolidation will save taxpayer money by combining resources and reducing duplicative costs."

Copyright 2012 KPLC. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.