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Low wages, poor working conditions have left state prisons understaffed, officials say

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF

Louisiana corrections officials told state lawmakers Monday that low wages and poor working conditions have led to chronic understaffing at the state’s prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

Jimmy Le Blanc, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, told lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee that staffing remains the biggest challenge for the department.

Le Blanc said that on Feb. 1, the department was short 1,275 employees through a combination of unfilled positions and staff that was out on leave across the state’s sprawling corrections system, which includes eight state-run prisons.

“We’re still struggling,” Le Blanc said. “That’s 26% of our total correctional officer positions, and department-wide turnover from cadet to sergeant is 70% over the last year.”

The shortages have led to lapses in security and low morale among the employees who do show up to work. Le Blanc also said staffing issues were to blame in correctional officers either failing to prevent contraband from entering the facilities or pushing guards to smuggle contraband themselves.

The department has continued to lose employees even after the state secured a 10% raise for correctional staff last year. The hourly wage for entry-level positions increased from $13.97 per hour to $15.37 per hour, about $32,000 per year.

By comparison, neighboring Mississippi offers prison guards with six months of experience a $38,000 annual salary, Le Blanc said.

But low wages are not the only cause of the department’s staffing woes.

Le Blanc said poor working conditions make it difficult to attract new employees. Guards are required to work 12-hour shifts in hot prison dormitories, nearly all with no air conditioning.

“You’ve got correctional officers changing clothes three times a day from sweating the whole day,” Le Blanc said.

He added that the department has to rethink some of the security measures currently in place that make working in a prison far less convenient than other low-wage jobs.

“Like bringing in a cell phone,” Le Blanc said. “They have to come into an institution on a 12-hour day, they may have children at home sick, and they can’t bring a cell phone into prison.”

To compound those issues, the remote location of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, in West Feliciana Parish leaves hiring officers at the prison with a small local population to draw recruits from.

Approximately 58% of corrections employees are female, which combined with staffing shortages, can leave just one female correctional officer in charge of an all-male dormitory without backup. Department officials said that is unsafe.

Last week, the Louisiana Illuminator reported that the Department of Corrections planned to transfer more than 600 incarcerated people from Angola to other facilities across the state because of staffing shortages at the state’s only maximum-security prison.

The majority will be moved to Allen Correctional Facility in Kinder, northeast of Lake Charles. Department officials said they think it will be easier to hire the new staff there given the facility's close proximity to Lake Charles. The move will take place in stages over the next three months, according to the report.

Le Blanc asked members of the Finance Committee to consider additional appropriations to increase overtime pay for corrections officers and one-time dollars to install air conditioning in prison dormitories.

“Knowing that I can come to work in a good environment, I think will make a big difference,” Le Blanc said.

Department officials estimate that adding air conditioning across state facilities could cost as much as $28 million.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of unfilled positions and employees at the Louisiana Department of Corrections on Feb. 1, 2022.

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