Lafayette’s jail is booked up

exterior of sheriff's office building
The sheriff’s office says it is understaffed and managing a more violent and complex population of inmates, many waiting on court dates for months or even years. Photo by Robin May

It’s not uncommon today for people arrested in Lafayette Parish to be detained in a holding room for up to two days while they await booking into the parish jail. That’s because there’s effectively no room at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, the sheriff’s office says. 

The sheriff’s office is understaffed and manages a recently more violent and complex population of inmates, many waiting on court dates for months or even years. In the meantime, people who would otherwise be arrested by LPD are either cut loose or released while the officer gets a judge to sign a warrant for arrest at a later date.

Those under custodial arrest are often chained to a bench in a holding room for long hours up to two days — a time frame even the sheriff’s office characterized as extreme but unavoidable while the system makes room.

Lafayette Parish’s criminal justice system is backlogged at nearly every juncture, and the jail feels all of those pressures. LPCC currently has roughly 500 pretrial detainees — the bulk of the jail’s population. Approximately 300 have been jailed for six months or more. These numbers used to be a lot lower, says Capt. John Mowell, the sheriff’s public affairs director.

“One of the homicides that a captain got subpoenaed for the other day happened in 2016,” he says. “A double homicide. He shows up for court. Guess what got continued? I mean, it’s 2016. … Those beds are out of commission for what, two to seven years on the extreme. So they’re just totally gone.”

It’s a frustrating experience for everyone involved, not to mention the potential impact on public safety, as it ties up a police officer or sheriff’s deputy — each from a department that is short-staffed — who could be on the streets protecting the public but is instead keeping watch over the arrestee. And, according to some Lafayette police officers, the lack of space has kept people who should be arrested, some of them violent, at large. 

Speaking recently to the McComb-Veazey Coterie about late-night patrol efforts, Capt. Thaddeus Sices said the PD recently pulled over three people in a traffic stop for reckless operation, ran their names and got a positive hit for an outstanding warrant. 

“[The driver] had no driver’s license, no insurance. … We ended up turning them loose because we didn’t have the jail space,” Sices told the coterie.

It’s unclear how commonly that happens. Lafayette Police Chief Judith Estorge, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story. 

Louisiana doesn’t have enough corrections officers

The sheriff’s department blames its part of the problem on its own staffing shortage. Manpower shortfalls are so widespread across the state that Gov. Jeff Landry earlier this month declared a state of emergency to allow sheriffs to immediately hire more deputies and increase payrolls. Landry made the declaration while simultaneously calling a 16-day special session to overhaul Louisiana’s criminal justice system and toss out reforms that a state analysis found reduced the state’s prison population while keeping violent offenders behind bars.

Sheriff’s department officials say they’re juggling a complicated intake process to keep prisoners and staff safe and accommodate state law. LPCC annually processes about 5,300 people (roughly half what it was pre-Covid) who have been arrested by the city, sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement agencies. The jail has 739 physical beds, but that doesn’t mean it can hold 739 prisoners at one time.

Capacity is based not on beds but on classification of inmates — which means LPCC’s usable capacity is today closer to 650. That number fluctuates on a daily or even hourly basis, according to Mowell; on Tuesday, Feb. 27, for example, the jail had 571 detainees and inmates, having balanced separation requirements of 89 beds for those deemed mentally ill and another 126 for those classified as violent. 

The only excess space available is for females.

Exterior of Lafayette Parish Correctional Center
While the jail has 739 physical beds, that doesn’t mean it can hold 739 prisoners at one time, as capacity is based not on beds but on classification of inmates. Photo by Robin May

“Every time somebody’s brought into the jail, they go through a classification process; it basically assesses them to see where they fit in our population,” Mowell says. “Do they have criminal sophistication? Do they have special needs? Do they have vulnerabilities that somebody else is going to prey upon? Are they predatory? Do they have any kind of mental illness?” The number of prisoners considered violent and a threat to the prison population, he says, has doubled in the past four years, a trend likely attributable to Covid: “That was people that were like, man, I’m stuck here because of Covid.” 

Covid also took a toll on employment, with LPCC losing a combined 88 deputies in 2021 and 2022, according to information provided by the sheriff’s department. The number of corrections employees leaving the jail dipped to 26 last year, with 60 more deputies hired. Over the past year, the jail itself has staffed up to what Mowell calls “the bare minimum,” and recruitment has been picking up at a decent clip. A third corrections academy was added last year, and the number of graduates from 2022 to 2023 nearly doubled to 65; the state also offered up a $5,000 bonus for newly employed municipal police officers, deputy sheriffs and state police troopers who have never worked in law enforcement before. 

While staffing is a pressing concern, the jail does have empty space. 

In August, the sheriff decided to temporarily shut down the jail annex, a facility on the Downtown campus that can hold about 95 people in custody. The jail itself is owned by Lafayette Parish government, and the sheriff is statutorily required to operate it. But the annex is owned and maintained by the sheriff. 

An open-dorm-like facility that allows incarcerated people to interact more freely, the annex wasn’t designed for unsentenced detainees but was used for the 20 or so who met certain classifications (non-violent, etc.) to take some pressure off the jail. Mowell says there wasn’t enough staff to keep the annex going. A similarly designed facility on Willow Street currently does alleviate some demand on the jail.

Exterior of jail annex
The annex on the Downtown campus, which has a capacity of 95, was shut down in late summer over lack of staffing but may re-open in May. Photo by Robin May

The decision to shut down the annex will be revisited in May, Mowell says, with an eye toward reopening if staffing is up. And another block of about 20-24 cells has been down for maintenance for about three weeks and should be back on line within a month. Mowell says maintenance is an ongoing challenge. “As soon as one block is back up,” the spokesman says, “you are identifying the next areas you need to work on.” 

Lafayette used to manage the jail’s load by paying other parishes to take its prisoners. 

In 2020 the cash-strapped parish stopped that practice, which had grown to cost nearly $2 million annually, Mowell says.

Those contracts took some pressure off the local jail, and local officials may revisit that approach.

Mayor-President Monique Blanco Boulet confirms that paying other parishes is one option under consideration as she and the sheriff look to “all short- and long-term solutions to provide relief with the jail overcrowding.” 

What impact will Landry’s criminal justice overhaul have?

Given the staffing issues, it’s hard to make the case that a new jail, which got $52.5 million in funding from the state last year, would solve this problem.  

Indeed, solutions may be hard to come by, so long as state criminal justice policy continues to impact local conditions. 

Louisiana leads the nation for state prisoners held in parish jails, and state inmates currently make up 10 percent of the jail population at LPCC, with the state paying the sheriff only $26 a day for a prisoner the sheriff says costs about $60 a day to house. (The jail also houses a small number of federal inmates.) 

A recent report from the legislative auditor on the 2017 criminal justice reform found that the reform’s programs saved the state $153 million while increasing the share of inmates who were convicted of violent offenses. Those savings have helped fund victims’ services, law enforcement and rehabilitative programs for prisoners. 

Many of those programs would be rolled back under the raft of legislation proposed by Gov. Landry. 

Sheriff Mark Garber tells The Current he supports the governor’s and Legislature’s efforts “to strengthen enforcement and hold offenders accountable during all phases of the criminal justice process.”  

“We would also like to see them follow up and take additional measures to make more bed space available at the Department of Corrections and mental health facilities to help alleviate pressure on parish jails,” the sheriff says.