Roughly 200 inmates are held beyond their legal release dates on any given month in Louisiana, amounting to 2,000 to 2,500 of the 12,000 to 16,000 prisoners freed each year, reported The New York Times. The average length of additional time was around 44 days in 2019, according to internal state corrections data obtained by lawyers for inmates — and until recently, the department’s public hotline warned families that the wait could be as long as 90 days.
In most other states and cities, prisoners and parolees marked for immediate release are typically processed within hours — not days — although those times can vary, particularly if officials must make arrangements required to release registered sex offenders. But in Louisiana, the problem known as “overdetention” is endemic, often occurring without explanation, apology or compensation — an overlooked crisis in a state that imprisons a higher percentage of its residents than any other in most years.
The practice is also wasteful. It costs Louisiana taxpayers about $2.8 million a year in housing costs alone, according to department estimates.
“The state has not made liberty, or taxpayer money, a priority in how they run their prisons,” said William B. Most, a lawyer based in New Orleans who has filed two class-action lawsuits on behalf of overdetained inmates.
“To our clients, it is an extremely scary experience because they do not know why they are being held, when they will be free or how they can get free,” he added. “All they know is they should not be behind bars.”
In December 2020, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the practices the state used to determine the release of its prisoners, particularly those, like Mr. Traweek, who remained behind bars despite being eligible for immediate release. The investigation, according to people with knowledge of the situation, is expected to find widespread violations of a federal law that guarantees imprisoned people their “rights, privileges or immunities.”
State officials have been cooperating with the investigation, so it is possible it could result in an agreement. Such a deal would probably require an overhaul of procedures used to calculate time served, according to people who have spoken to investigators, and mandate the replacement of the state’s outdated corrections computer system known as CAJUN. (Its error message is a pixelated pop-up of a bunny behind bars.)
Prisoners’ rights groups say that federally mandated changes, while welcome, would do little to overcome the core problem that defines Louisiana’s troubled criminal justice system: an entrenched belief that an inmate’s freedom is worth less than everyone else’s.
“We exist in a space between malice and incompetence,” said Jamila Johnson of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit in New Orleans that has sued the state for unlawful detention and poor treatment of prisoners.
A spokesman for Louisiana’s corrections department declined to discuss overdetention or even provide basic information about how the system operates and declined to respond to specific claims by inmates, citing the continuing litigation.
But in a deposition taken in January, James M. Le Blanc, who has run the agency for 14 years, acknowledged that the state has “had a problem with immediate releases” since at least 2012. He said the department had halved waiting times in recent years, from an average of more than 70 days a decade ago, and claimed that parish prison officials were also responsible for the drawn-out releases.
The problem crops up sporadically in other states, including neighboring Mississippi, and in the federal Bureau of Prisons. New York City recently agreed to pay out as much as $300 million to thousands of current and former inmates at local jails who had been kept hours or a few days after they were supposed to be released. But those waiting times are relatively short compared with what prisoners in Louisiana endure.
The state routinely sends prisoners with sentences under 20 years (and those with serious physical or mental conditions) to jails or prisons run by governments in local parishes, which are the equivalent of county governments elsewhere. That means parish prisons serve not only as traditional jails, but also as officially designated extensions of the state prison system.
It is a jumbled and sluggish system with tangled lines of communication and jurisdiction — and many of the prisoners who have been kept past their release dates fell into the chasm between dysfunctional state and parish bureaucracies.
A judge freed Brian Humphrey from the jail in Bossier Parish in northwest Louisiana on April 16, 2019, after he had served three years for an offense related to assault. He prepared to leave that night. Instead, he languished.
The corrections department, for reasons that remain unclear, waited 10 days to even begin processing his paperwork, according to records obtained in a 2021 class-action lawsuit his lawyers filed against the state. Instead of freeing Mr. Humphrey, as he was legally bound to do, the parish sheriff transferred him to a state-run work camp outside Shreveport, where he stayed until he was released on May 13, 2019.
That was 27 days beyond his release date.
Louisiana has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country, yet parish sheriffs are often reluctant to release people they believe are at high risk of committing new crimes. Some even view inmates housed in local facilities as worth holding onto as free labor.
In October 2017, Sheriff Steve Prator of Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport, told reporters he was concerned that a recent criminal justice effort in the state was bad for parish governments. Not only would it result in higher crime rates among the “bad” former prisoners, but it would also deprive his staff of free labor provided by the “good ones.”
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