$1.2 million upgrade slated for 60-year-old La. jail

The detention center has long been criticized for its outdated facilities that some argue border on dangerous

By Elyse Carmosino
The Advocate

BATON ROUGE, La. — East Baton Rouge's dilapidated adult jail is poised to receive $1.2 million in upgrades, parish officials say.

The funds — approved by the parish's metro council earlier this year as part of a $48 million federal relief package from Congress' American Rescue Plan Act — will go toward improvements at the more than 60-year-old detention center, which has long been criticized for its outdated facilities and high number of inmate deaths

A start date for the upgrades has not been announced.

"It takes a lot of time to do the planning," said Darryl Gissel, the mayor's chief administrative officer. "We have to put stuff out to bid, et cetera, and that's just really getting underway."

East Baton Rouge typically spends about $1.7 million yearly on maintenance for the prison, which can include anything from sewer and shower repairs to painting and roofing, Gissel said. But in August, the city-parish appropriated the additional $1.2 million in federal funds meant to go to more urgent upgrades.

City-parish spokesman Mark Armstrong said the money will fund five separate projects:

— $100,000 to replace eight air handlers

— $500,000 to replace 20 rooftop HVAC units

— $150,000 to replace some of the prison's washers and dryers

— $200,000 to replace cooking equipment and walk-in freezers

— $250,000 to replace the Q building roof.

Separately, the parish is spending $2 million to upgrade the juvenile prison's internal security, including two modular units, security controls and 25 security doors. The juvenile facility saw seven youths break out earlier this year, part of a larger crisis in Louisiana's youth prisons.

Officials have long decried the state of the parish's detention centers, both of which have been the subject of scrutiny in recent years for their outdated facilities that some argue border on dangerous.

Earlier this year, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III called for the 70-year-old juvenile jail to be torn down and rebuilt after three boys threatened staff and ripped out ceiling tiles during a two-hour long uproar at the facility.

Though no one was seriously injured in the incident, Moore said the ordeal could have had a far worse outcome and pointed to the ripped-out ceiling tiles as an example of how outdated structures can create scenarios that risk harming jail staff and other inmates.

The parish has also permanently closed one wing of its adult prison because the ceiling in that part of the facility is too low, which makes installing tamper-proof security cameras throughout the wing nearly impossible, Gissel said.

"They're low enough that somebody could get to the devices and pull them down," he said.

The cell bars in that section of the jail, which was built in the 1960s and houses roughly 1,100 inmates, are also outdated, posing additional safety risks.

"There are just a lot of obsolescence issues," Gissel said. "They can't really just go in and raise the ceiling because these are concrete structures. You're basically rebuilding something if you get into that."

A study released last year by Loyola University New Orleans College of Law found East Baton Rouge Parish Prison had the highest death rate among all of the state's pretrial detention facilities, with at least 25 men dying behind bars between 2012 and 2016.

Under mounting pressure to address the issue, the city's metro council approved a $6 million annual contract with an Oklahoma-based private company last December to run the facility's medical program. City officials had pursued the new contract after acknowledging the outsize death rate under the jail's previous company, CorrectHealth.

Despite longstanding calls for a new facility, Gissel said rebuilding the detention center will be a costly and complicated undertaking.

In 2015, the metro council voted against a $335 million public safety tax plan proposed by then-Mayor-President Kip Holden. The tax would have funded the rebuilding of both detention centers, as well as the construction of a new mental health facility.

"First is figuring out the size and needs of the facility and determining a rough cost and where it would be located," Gissel said. "Then you have to find the money to do it."

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