In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. (Jarvis DeBerry)
Louisiana will transfer 602 people in prison at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to other correctional facilities over the next three months in order to cope with a chronic staffing shortage.
Allen Correctional Center in Kinder will absorb the extra capacity by adding 602 beds. Prison officials expect it will be easier to hire staff at Allen, located northeast of Lake Charles, than it has been at Angola.
“It’s a better location than something like Angola. I think they have a little bit more of an area to pull from,” Thomas Bickham, who oversees prison finances for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said of Allen.
With nearly 5,100 people incarcerated, Angola is one of the biggest maximum-security prisons in the country and the only maximum-security prison in Louisiana. Transferring 602 people from the facility would result in a nearly 12% drop of its current population.
The swap will also involve state prisons beyond Angola and Allen. Not everyone leaving Angola will be able to go to Allen directly because it is a minimum-security facility. Instead, some will go to other state prisons with tighter restrictions, reshuffling other prisoners to Allen, Bickham said.
“There’s a little more devil in the details making sure we get the right ones out [of Angola] and the right ones into Allen,” he said.
Angola is losing funding and staff along with its incarcerated people. The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget last month voted to transfer $2.6 million and 130 vacant positions from Angola to Allen as part of the move. Those positions include not just correctional officers, but also medical personnel, teachers and social workers.
The shift will happen in stages. Approximately 200 people will move out of Angola and into Allen each month over the next three months. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections also expects to hire 60 new staff members at Allen this month, 39 in April, and 31 in May, according to legislative documents.
“We’re not moving all 600 at one time,” Bickham said. “We realize they are not going to be able to hire all the employees at one time so we are taking a staged approach.”
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Bickham said the prison system will try not to move anyone farther away from their family members and loved ones if possible. Much of Angola’s population comes from southeastern Louisiana parishes including Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany. Allen is 100 miles farther away from those communities.
Angola is also, by design, in a desolate part of West Feliciana Parish – 22 miles from the closest highway and almost entirely surrounded by thick, undeveloped wilderness. The nearest town, St. Francisville, has fewer than 2,000 residents.
The prison’s isolation is part of what makes it so difficult to hire and keep staff. Louisiana’s entire prison system has struggled to attract and retain workers for years, but the problem is most “acute” at Angola, where there are 350 vacant jobs, Bickham said.
Louisiana has raised entry-level prison guard pay a few times in recent years. In 2021, it went from $13.97 to $15.37 per hour. That rate equates to about $32,000 annually, but workers have been less willing to take low-wage jobs since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prison staff also work under difficult circumstances. None of the state prisons have air conditioning in their dormitories.
The state of Angola’s physical plant may also deter workers. The prison opened at the beginning of the 20th century and many of its buildings are several decades old. For years, Louisiana also cut the prison system’s building maintenance funding to help manage a statewide budget crisis. Now, Angola needs more building repairs than the prison system can afford.
“It is becoming a maintenance nightmare,” Bickham said.
Allen, by comparison, is “state of the art,” according to Bickham. It was built in 1993 and is one of Louisiana’s newest prisons.
With an additional 600 incarcerated people, Allen will almost double in population over the next three months. The facility currently has 760 imprisoned. It is also technically a subsidiary of Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center in Cottonport, though the influx will elevate its status to an independent facility. The person who oversees Allen will go from assistant prison warden to full prison warden under the new plan, Bickham said.
Allen has already undergone several changes in the past seven years.
Though built by the state, Allen operated as a private prison from the time it opened until 2016. The GEO Group pulled out of its contract to run Allen after the state cut the private prison company’s rate per prisoner under Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Allen was also briefly converted from a prison to a jail to save money in 2015. At the time, GEO Group determined it couldn’t afford to offer the educational and medical services required to maintain Allen’s accreditation as a prison. Since the state has taken over its operation, Allen has gone back to being a prison with a larger education and medical staff, prison officials said.
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