More Than 40 People Have Died in the East Baton Rouge Jail. Will Voters Oust the Sheriff?
Sheriff Sid Gautreaux faces two Democratic challengers in the Oct. 12 election.
The jail in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has suffered a string of fatalities in recent years. But last month residents learned that the death toll was even higher than they knew. According to data obtained by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a Louisiana-based criminal justice group, 16 men have died under the care of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, the local jail, since 2017. Activists are concerned about the number of fatalities, and say the sheriff’s office failed to announce them to the public.
More than 40 prisoners have died in custody since 2012 under the watch of Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, who took office in 2007.
The sheriff did not respond to an interview request from The Appeal, but in the past, Gautreaux’s office has largely blamed the death toll on healthcare contractors, inadequate jail facilities, and the prisoners themselves.
“The majority of deaths that occur at EBRPP [East Baton Rouge Parish Prison] have been a result of poor health and pre-existing conditions prior to entering the prison,” the sheriff’s office said after the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition voiced its concerns at a rally. “In addition to having poor health and pre-existing conditions, a large portion of the prison population suffers from drug addiction and the effects of prolonged drug use.”
But two Democrats who are running for Gautreaux’s seat in an election this Saturday say they could do better if given the chance. If none of the candidates receive more than 50 percent of the vote in that race, a runoff will be held in November.
Mark Milligan, a retired police officer who served for over two decades and was born and raised in East Baton Rouge, is one of the challengers. “When you put someone in handcuffs, from that moment on, you’re responsible for them,” Milligan told The Appeal. “You’re not supposed to get the luxury of determining who’s going to live and who’s going to die.”
Though the East Baton Rouge Parish owns the jail, the facility and carceral policy in the parish are the domain of the sheriff’s office, and decisions about who gets incarcerated and how they are subsequently treated are made by the sheriff himself.
In any election, it’s more difficult to unseat an incumbent than beat a challenger, and sheriffs in particular tend to have a long shelf life. A sheriff’s powers are particularly potent in Louisiana, where the state’s Constitution calls the position a parish’s “chief law enforcement officer.”
Gautreaux was first elected as a Democrat but switched parties in in 2011, when he ran as a Republican. That year he was challenged by Milligan, who won 27 percent of the vote to Gautreaux’s 73. This year is Milligan’s third run for sheriff, but he thinks that the parish’s changing demographics—and its disillusionment over Gautreaux’s handling of the jail—have given him an advantage.
Milligan told The Appeal that jail deaths are preventable, a view also held by the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), which last summer released a report about the East Baton Rouge jail’s high death toll. The PJI report suggested ways in which jail conditions could be improved: providing adequate medical and health services, having enough staff trained in suicide prevention, reducing the number of prisoners by limiting pretrial detention, and encouraging greater transparency from jail officials.
The jail’s warden said in a statement to The Appeal that the number of people who cycle through the jail ranges from 12,000 to more than 15,000 per year, and that deaths are below the national average, though advocates dispute that assertion. The warden says the jail now has more than 22 rehabilitative programs for prisoners and reiterated that the sheriff is responsible for security at the prison and for ensuring that prisoners have access to medical care, but does not oversee the care itself.
“The Sheriff does not employ nor supervise the medical staff,” the warden wrote. “The Sheriff’s office has no authority over decisions made by the medical department.” Before 2017, the city oversaw healthcare for the jail. Since then, a Georgia-based company called CorrectHealth has provided its healthcare. CorrectHealth was not immediately available for comment.
The warden declined to address advocates’ assertion that deaths were hidden from the public, but said that the jail reports prisoner deaths to the Bureau of Justice Statistics each year.
Gautreaux’s opponents in the sheriff’s race say the measures the jail has taken do little to address the systemic issues behind the deaths. Milligan believes the parish’s poor jail conditions stem in part from overcrowding and can be addressed through policing reform. East Baton Rouge jails people at a rate of 381 for every 100,000 residents—over 100 more people than the national average—and nearly 90 percent of those incarcerated are simply waiting for their cases to be heard or resolved.
“Any misdemeanor charge that does not fall under a violent act should be issued a summons,” Milligan said. “We should be putting violent offenders in [jail], but instead we’re putting [in] every offender that comes along.”
Charles Jean Jr., the other Democratic contender, supports the guidelines proposed by the PJI report. Like Milligan, he backs diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, more focus on mental health needs, and greater transparency from the jail.
To tackle overcrowding, Jean has proposed limiting cash bail, and pointed out that most of the men who have died in the jail were never convicted of crimes. “We need to focus on diversion programs,” Jean said. “The system is screwed up enough. Let’s not screw people up more by putting them in a machine that’s going to pick them up and eat them.”
Jean has lived in East Baton Rouge since the early ’90s and works in healthcare as a quality assurance manager. He spent six years as a campus police officer for Baton Rouge Community College but has never worked in municipal law enforcement. He isn’t daunted by that. “With all respect to the acting sheriff, I couldn’t do worse,” he said, citing Gautreaux’s record of “horrible prison standards, safety issues, deaths.”
Both Milligan and Jean have vowed to end the jail’s 287(g) agreement with ICE—which Gautreaux began in 2017—should they be elected. The agreement is essentially a partnership between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials to hand off undocumented immigrants after they are arrested.
“I believe that removing ICE from the jail would be better for all,” Jean said. “There is no legal obligation to help enforce federal immigration laws.”
One key difference between the two challengers is their stance on whether to build a jail to replace the current building. Jean supports the idea, pushing for a smaller and safer facility, while Milligan believes that a new jail would be a waste of money and do little to help prisoners.
Milligan thinks the parish would be better off repairing the existing jail. “I’m not interested in charging the taxpayers for a new prison,” he said. “I believe we can rehab what we have.”
Though it was built over five decades ago, the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison has not been significantly updated since the late 1980s and has a host of structural issues. Some areas do not have enough surveillance cameras, and jail administration has said the ceilings are too low to install more. In May 2018, the jail closed three of its wings because of safety concerns for both guards and prisoners.
Gautreaux has indicated that he feels hamstrung by the jail’s problems and its lack of funding. “I wish I wasn’t even in the prison business to tell the truth,” he said at an East Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council meeting last spring. “There’s so much that we need out there.”
Finding funds either to update or replace the jail will prove challenging for whoever is elected; for several years voters have rejected tax proposals that would go toward the facility. But Milligan and Jean said that Gautreaux has failed to adequately appeal to voters, and that doing so could convince the parish to devote more funds to the jail and the people in its care.
Activists in East Baton Rouge have been hesitant to endorse either of the Democratic challengers but say a new direction is badly needed. “A new sheriff with a different mindset would make amazing changes,” said Reverend Alexis Anderson, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “We have nowhere but up to go.”
In December, in an effort to divert people with mental health needs from the jail, East Baton Rouge voters approved a property tax to fund a new mental health crisis center to take in those who need emergency treatment. The center, which is scheduled to open next spring, aims to have 30 beds for relatively short-term stays, said Kathy Kliebert, the board chairperson for the organization managing the center. She thinks the center’s stabilization services will prevent more jail deaths.
Activists, however, are wary of the center, concerned that it will have too close a relationship with parish law enforcement. “I don’t see that center truthfully being the solution, because it was designed to run straight through the criminal justice system,” Reverend Anderson said. Sheriff Gautreaux serves on the center’s board.
David Utter, a lawyer representing families who have lost loved ones at the jail, sees this weekend’s election as a decisive moment for the jail. “There are many things that the sheriff—whoever it is—can do to make that jail safer for people,” he said. The sheriff’s office, by way of the warden, could decide to end the practice of solitary confinement, for instance, which has been shown to inflict trauma and increase the risk of suicide.
William Claiborne, another attorney involved in lawsuits against the jail, echoed those concerns. “Right now, there are mentally ill people being housed [in the jail] who we have no confidence are receiving the care they need,” he said. “Any of those individuals could suffer great harm today, tomorrow or next week, because [jail officials] just keep doing the same thing, which is ignoring the needs of these people and ignoring the reality that the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is deadly.”