Could immigration enforcement be a boon to our jails?

Jeff Sadow

What’s good for Bossier Parish also may apply to Webster Parish in holding prisoners, which may mean bad news for Louisiana’s inmate policy.

Uniquely among states, Louisiana houses a large proportion of its state inmates in local facilities. In recent years, typically half of state convicts at any given time serve time in any of dozens of local jails: some run by sheriffs, others by other entities including the private sector.

The state pays $24.39 daily for each inmate. While this hasn’t changed for many years, a number of providers must think it adequate because they keep significant amounts of state prisoners, with some breaching the same ratio seen statewide: at least as many state as local convicts.

Both Bossier and Webster Parishes’ head jailers, Sheriffs Julian Whittington and Gary Sexton, in recent years have fit this pattern. With around 1,500 capacity, Bossier facilities typically had an inmate population half from the state, mostly at its medium security facility. Webster Parish’s Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Center that holds approaching 500 often had upwards of 70 percent of its space taken by state prisoners, and the much smaller Webster Parish Jail had a handful as well.

Handling these prisoners can mean big bucks and jobs. In Webster, more than a quarter of the just over $14 million raised by the sheriff’s office in fiscal year 2016 came from housing state convicts.

But as Louisiana strives to reduce its inmate population, which resulted in a privately-run state prison closing last year upon cutting its operator’s rate from $31.51 to the local per diem, the state may become a less-reliable supplier of convicts. Enter a competitor whose policies send its demands for space in the opposite direction.

With the federal government ramping up border enforcement efforts, room for illegal aliens has fetched a premium. It has used local facilities before, but with apprehensions more than tripling year-over-year and its discarding the previous catch-and-release policy, facilities like parish jails have increased options in picking prisoners.

And Whittington has gone the federal route, enticed by the $62 daily pay per inmate. He allocated 182 former state convict spaces to those apprehended by the federal government.

Not all local authorities can qualify for them. Jailers must keep them isolated from the general inmate population, and Bossier’s complex of different buildings for differing levels of security makes that easier.

With the state trying to circumscribe its number of prisoners, that led this fiscal year to a reduced number coming to Bossier and hundreds of thousands fewer dollars with that. Housing Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees can more than make up for that.

It’s something Sexton should look into, and he unlikely won’t be the only sheriff across the state exploring this. If enough do, Louisiana could find itself with an inmate bed crunch despite the attempt to incarcerate fewer criminals for shorter periods.

The threat in budget and tax negotiations just wrapped up at the capitol was cutting the per diem. Now it’s that this may need raising.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer or this newspaper.

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