Sheriff makes room to address overcrowding at Lafayette jail

Sheriff spokesman John Mowell discusses jail overcrowding
In a March presentation, Capt. John Mowell explained how classification of inmates reduces the number of available beds. Since that time, the department has undertaken a number of steps that have allowed it to drastically cut back on the amount of time it takes to book an arrestee. Photo by Robin May

The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center has taken steps, big and small, to address a persistent overcrowding issue that has long frustrated law enforcement officers and potentially put the community’s safety at risk. 

The Current reported in February that people under custodial arrest were often chained to a bench in a holding room for long hours while the jail tried to make space. 

At the time, Capt. John Mowell, the sheriff’s public affairs director, outlined some of the steps the department was taking to alleviate the problem, and said this week those measures, and additional changes, are working. Lafayette Police department officers, who expressed exasperation earlier this year, also confirmed to The Current that wait times have all but disappeared.

The clog was a frustrating experience for everyone involved. The long waits tied up officers — many from departments already short-staffed — who could have otherwise been on patrol. According to Lafayette police officers, the lack of space meant people who should have been arrested, some of them violent, were at large.

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The problem at the jail was among the most outward signs of a local criminal justice system backlogged at nearly every juncture, with the jail feeling all of those pressures. The bulk of LPCC’s jail population is pretrial detainees. In February it had 500, approximately 300 who had been jailed for six months or more. 

Last month, the sheriff’s department reopened a portion of the Downtown jail complex’s annex, a dorm-like facility it temporarily shut down in August, citing a lack of staff to run it. A facility on the Downtown campus that can hold about 95 people in custody, the annex is owned and maintained by the sheriff — unlike the jail itself, which is owned by Lafayette Parish government, with the sheriff statutorily required to operate it. 

Mowell says 48 beds were reopened for inmates who meet certain criteria, like those who are non-violent and don’t have the kind of mental health problems preventing them from being housed in an open environment. 

“I can’t emphasize enough that they have to be classified accordingly to be housed under that [lower] level of supervision,” Mowell says. 

When inmates are admitted with severe mental health issues or have a history violence, they require additional protective measures, which Mowell says is a drain on both personnel and available space. 

Exterior of jail annex
In April the sheriff’s department reopened a portion of the Downtown jail complex’s annex, a dorm-like facility it temporarily shut down in August, citing a lack of staff to run it.

The sheriff also gave the federal government a 30-day notice that it was canceling its contract to house federal inmates, a population that got as high as 17 earlier this year but is now down to three. Depending on the terms of the contract, federal rates can be as high as $70 a prisoner per day. A request for the value of the contract is pending. 

Additionally, there was increased pressure on the state Department of Corrections to take its prisoners off LPCC’s hands. 

“It’s really about just making sure that we’re talking to [DOC] about speeding up the processes they go through to where we can ship people either directly to their facilities or to other parishes. And actually being more proactive in communicating directly with other parishes [that have excess beds],” Mowell says. 

Louisiana leads the nation for state prisoners held in parish jails, with the state paying the sheriff about $26 a day for a prisoner the sheriff says costs $60 a day to house. 

In mid-March LPCC was holding about 70 DOC inmates. This week it has 30. 

Lafayette used to manage the jail’s load by paying other parishes to take its prisoners, but in 2020 the cash-strapped parish stopped that practice, which had grown to cost nearly $2 million annually. The parish this year agreed to again take on some of that financial burden, says Mowell, who asked for more time to confirm the details.

The sheriff is also looking to implement a GPS monitoring program for qualifying inmates. The program would cost about $90,000 a year and could free up 20 beds, but no funding source has been identified yet, according to Mowell. 

The spokesman, who cautions that overcrowding remains an ongoing problem, believes the dialogue that has opened up with Mayor-President Monique Blanco Boulet’s move to restart the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which has a subcommittee working on overcrowding, is a new level of reassurance that disparate parts of the criminal justice system can get on the same page.

For her part, Boulet has committed to ongoing work with the sheriff to address overcrowding and also notes the critical role of the local judiciary. “The overcrowding subcommittee is meeting every two weeks and making good progress,” the mayor-president says. 

“As you can see this is all quite complicated and sometimes there is no room at the inn,” Lafayette City Court Judge Jules Edwards, a member of the subcommittee, told The Current last month. Edwards explained how the judiciary can be part of the solution. 

“When I learn there is a waiting list, I will typically keep the person in court with me as I work through my docket. If at the end of the workday, there is still no room at the inn, I must get creative,” said Edwards, a retired district court judge who now hears cases involving state misdemeanor criminal laws and violations of LCG city ordinances. 

“Sometimes I convert the jail sentence to community service, sometimes I simply serve the person to return to court in the morning and continue that process throughout the week until a vacancy develops,” the judge added. “Of course, I will not reveal all of my secrets. I will simply say I am glad that we got the band back together and Lafayette Parish is safer now that the CJCC is back in action.”