Imagine counting down the days until your release from prison, only to have the day arrive and you find out that you will not be going home. Days and nights pass, and you are still sitting and waiting on freedom from the confinement of the four walls of a cell.
It happens regularly in the state of Louisiana. It is costly to taxpayers, and even more importantly, it causes irreparable harm to those who are held behind prison walls longer than they should be.
Being held behind bars one second longer than you should be is inhumane and cruel. Yet in Louisiana, hundreds of people are being held days, weeks, months and even years beyond their release dates. This egregious act is happening because of complex sentencing calculations, outdated technology, and the poor communication practices between clerks, jailers and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
A 2017 audit revealed that people incarcerated in Louisiana were regularly being held past their release dates. On average, it costs the state of Louisiana $54.20 per day to house a person in prison. An investigation of court records in 2019 found that one man was held approximately 960 days past his scheduled release date, meaning the state spent about $52,000 to detain him for those additional days.
As straightforward as a release date may seem, it is much more complex as factors such as whether the person has multiple or split sentences, probation or parole violations and “good time” earned – credit earned by an incarcerated person that reduces the sentence – affect a person’s release date and require calculations. In his official response to the 2017 audit, James LeBlanc, secretary for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, said calculating release dates involves over 20 criteria and the process is “complex and ever changing.”
In New Orleans, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) runs the city jail. When a person being held in Orleans Parish is scheduled for release, an officer from OPSO drives approximately 75 miles to deliver the paperwork to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana.
This antiquated process of delivery is one of the initial steps that takes place before an incarcerated person can be released, and it happens only once a week. Once the papers are delivered, the Department of Corrections enters the information into a data system known as the Corrections and Justice Unified Network (CAJUN).
CAJUN was implemented in 1980. In 2015, the Department of Corrections spent $3.6 million to replace the data system. After only 46 days of use, it was determined officials did not run a proper test on the system before use, and staff was not sufficiently trained on how to use it. The system was abandoned in 2017 after a contractor paid $49,000 by prison officials determined the system could not be salvaged.
Lawsuits are being filed all over the state of Louisiana on behalf of people who have been subjected to this very cruel and unusual punishment. In December 2019, LeBlanc reported that the Department of Corrections is a named co-defendant in at least 10 cases where the plaintiff was held beyond their release date. Other lawsuits have been filed since then, and in December 2020, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Louisiana’s prison release policies.
While officials in the sheriff’s office and those within the Department of Corrections blame one another for this extreme miscarriage of justice, Louisiana leads the nation once again in having the highest rate of incarceration. Surely the timely release of prisoners would help to reduce that rate.
The SPLC Action Fund continues to work alongside our legal team and coalition partners to design a remedy for this ongoing problem – a problem that is costly to taxpayers and causes severe damage to so many lives.
Chandra Shae Foster is policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Louisiana.
Photo above: The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, is pictured on May 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)