Louisiana To Build New Prison For Women Displaced By 2016 Storm
More than three years after heavy rains and flooding devastated the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, officials have reached an agreement to build a new facility.
Alaris Payne looked out the window of her cell at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women and saw water rising. It was Aug. 16, 2016, and it had been raining constantly for days in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, and the area surrounding the prison, which is known as LCIW, began to flood.
Later that day, prison officials told the incarcerated women that they would need to evacuate and instructed them to pack two laundry sacks of belongings. Payne secured her locker and placed the remainder of her items, including legal papers and pictures, on top of it so they wouldn’t be swept away in the climbing water. As Payne boarded a bus to leave the prison, the water had risen to her knees. “They promised us that we would be back,” Payne wrote this month in an email to The Appeal sent through a prison communications system.
But Payne and her fellow prisoners will not return to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. The storm, described as a once-in-500-year event, devastated parts of the state, including 31 buildings at LCIW, which were left inundated with mold. Instead of remediating the prison, which was built during the 1970s, the Louisiana Department of Corrections decided to abandon the old campus and build a new facility.
Now, more than three years after the flood, a DOC official told The Appeal that the agency finally has the funding to move forward with its plan. In September, the DOC reached an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide $36.2 million to construct a $100 million prison approximately a half-mile away from the former site, DOC undersecretary Thomas Bickham said in a telephone interview. DOC officials say the 1,000-bed campus—slightly smaller than the previous 1,100-bed LCIW—would be equipped with better facilities and improved services and programs.
“Yes, this has taken too long,” said Bickham. “I wish we would have been in this position a year and a half ago. This has been a very long, tedious process to get to this point.”
But Bickham said construction on the project would most likely not begin until 2021. In the meantime, the more than 900 women who were incarcerated at LCIW will remain dispersed throughout Louisiana in local and state facilities. For some, this has meant living in overcrowded dorms, and limited access to programs and services. For others, it has meant fewer visits from loved ones who are unable to make the now hours-long trips across the state.
The women were divided among five facilities in the state, based on their classification, mental health and medical needs, and “security risk.” The women were divided among five facilities in the state, based on their classification, mental health and medical needs, and “security risk.” 103 of them are incarcerated at the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women in Tallulah, in the northeast part of the state near the Mississippi line. Its remote location makes it a long, difficult trip from both the LCIW area and major cities like New Orleans (it’s nearly 250 miles from New Orleans, and about 200 miles from LCIW), making visits with attorneys and families challenging. Studies have shown that visits have a positive impact on the behavior of incarcerated and reduce recidivism rates.
A repurposed former juvenile correctional facility in Baton Rouge is holding 286 women, and 224 women are at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center campus, housed in a female dorm adjacent to a men’s prison notorious for its history abuse of incarcerated people by guards (the officers at the men’s prison do not supervise the women at the female dorm). Twenty-four women were moved to the Plaquemines Parish jail south of New Orleans, and 14 are at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the maximum security men’s prison in Angola.
“I think it creates more hardship than anything in so many ways; psychologically, spiritually,” said Consuela Gaines, who was incarcerated at LCIW when it was evacuated and is now the Lafayette chapter organizer for the grassroots reform organization Voice of the Experienced.
She told The Appeal that she has heard “horror stories” about the lack of fresh air, programs, and medical care from women at the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women. A list of programs provided to The Appeal by the DOC shows that the facility offers 12 programs on subjects such as dealing with trauma and anger management, far fewer programs than at the former juvenile facility and Elayn Hunt.
“At LCIW we were able to move around after work, we were able to be out on the yard until lockdown, participate in different activities but [LTCW] doesn’t have that so it’s very depressing,” said Gaines.
Bickham told The Appeal that the state had few options for housing the women and acknowledged that the displacement has resulted in reduced programming.
Ken Pastorick, a DOC spokesperson, told The Appeal that workers were able to retrieve some items that LCIW left behind during the 2016 flood, but others, such as Payne’s pictures and letters from her family, were never recovered. Each woman has received $50 in compensation for the loss of their belongings, he said.
“All of us grieved for our lost property,” wrote Payne, who was transferred between facilities several times after being displaced from LCIW and is now incarcerated at Elayn Hunt. “ We didn’t have much, but what we did have, we cherished.”
Eddie Williams, the public assistance infrastructure branch director for the Baton Rouge FEMA office, told The Appeal that construction delays were caused by an extensive assessment of LCIW by the DOC as well as disagreements between FEMA and the DOC about damage caused by the flooding versus existing damage. “It just took us some time to work through that,” he said.
The new women’s prison will have educational facilities, medical and mental health facilities, and a postnatal ward for women who give birth while incarcerated, said Bickham, who called the prison’s previous medical facility “wholly inadequate.” Indeed, LCIW has been sued for its poor medical care in the past; in 2009, attorneys for the family of a woman who died at the facility wrote in a lawsuit that her death was a result of repeatedly being denied medical care.
Bickham said he hopes to secure funding for the remainder of the project by October 2020 through bonds. Construction would get underway in February 2021. Bickham said expects the entire facility to take 18 to 24 months to build.
“The bottom line is would we like to be back at LCIW now? Absolutely,” he said. “We want to do this right, this is a one-time deal.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of women moved from LCIW to the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women in Tallulah after the 2016 storm. It is 103, not 571.