The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation into the Louisiana prison system’s longstanding practice of keeping prisoners confined to jail for varying lengths of time past their release date.
William Most, a New Orleans attorney representing clients who say they were locked up longer than the law allows, claimed in a lawsuit filed in federal court in April 2018 that the results of Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections 2012 internal review found 83 percent of inmates in Louisiana prisons (2,252 people) were “overdetained” by an average of 72 days beyond their court-ordered release date.
Most, who has now filed lawsuits on behalf of six people who say they were locked up too long, said Friday that even now, three years after he first sued the Department of Corrections, “They haven’t really even tried to fix it. The goal they set for themselves was to reduce the delays by only half.”
Ken Pastorick, public information officer for the state Department of Corrections said in an email Friday that the department “looks forward to fully cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ),” Pastorick said. “The DOC takes this very seriously, and will assist in whatever way necessary in this investigation.“
It doesn’t appear that jail and prison officials are being malicious. Rather, calculating the exact length of an inmate’s prison sentence and subtracting time that the inmate may have already served is apparently more difficult than it might appear. And according to a 2017 report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office, the department “uses the Criminal and Justice Unified Network (CAJUN) to enter, process, and report on all of its incarceration activities” and that it is “a legacy mainframe application that was updated in 1991 to replace a version that originated in the 1970s.”
According to a press release from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the federal investigation “will examine the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections’ policies and practices for ensuring the timely release of state prisoners” in Louisiana, including those who may be eligible for immediate release.
According to that press release, “The department has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in this matter. The investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA).”
Federal courts have held that unexpected delays in releasing prisoners may be reasonable if the delay is no longer than 48 hours. Most said the DOC kept one of his clients, Brian McNeal, behind bars 589 days after he’d served his full sentence.
“They knew he was supposed to be out, and they just kept screwing up his release,” Most said. “Even after the DOC knew he should be free, they still didn’t let him go.”
The department has admitted to some of the mismanagement and at one point even decided to make the delays part of official policy, Most said, by posting a notice on its website telling the public to expect a 12-week delay in calculating a prisoner’s release date. Since the 2012 internal review showing that the average prisoner was being kept 72 days past his or her release date, the number of extra days has been roughly cut in half, the attorney said, but the number of prisoners being delayed has increased.
Most said he has already cleared a significant hurdle in one of the lawsuits. A U.S. district court judge ruled for his client by finding the Department of Corrections guilty of the civil charge of false imprisonment. That case is scheduled for trial in June 2021 to decide an additional civil rights claim. Three other trials are also scheduled for March, July and September.
In addition to the old computer system that the legislative auditor’s report found, some additional problems have been attributed to an outdated system of transferring paperwork from one agency to another, sometimes requiring prison records to be delivered in a van once per week.
“The head of the clerks of court association, Debbie Hudnall, met with DOC Secretary James LeBlanc and offered them help with emailing records,” Most said. “LeBlanc declined her offer. The DOC explained that it would ‘cause more work for them.’”