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Old 05-12-2003, 04:35 AM
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danielle danielle is offline
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Unhappy Alabama women dislike newer, safer prison

Alabama women dislike newer, safer prison

Inmates miss family visits, jobs at crowded Tutwiler


News staff writer

BASILE, La. Dorms at the Southwestern Louisiana Correctional Facility are named after high school mascots: Wolf, Bearcat, Eagle, Tiger and Weasel.

It's the company's way to promote community pride inside a grim place where no one wants to play on the team.

This is the private prison housing 140 female inmates from Alabama. They're the Tigers. Another 140 Alabama women are on the way.

"Y'all doin' OK?" Richard Harbison, general manager of LCS Corrections Services, the company that owns and runs the for-profit prison, asked the sea of women wearing traffic-cone orange inside Tiger 1.

A chorus of "No's" followed.

"What's wrong?" Harbison asked.

"We want to go back to Alabama," came a voice from within the orange cluster.

The visiting team is particularly sour.

Officials at LCS can tolerate a lot of homesick complaining. The Alabama contract means this maze-like compound of squat pre-fab buildings and gleaming chain-link fencing is turning a profit again.

"Ideally, I would like to have 850 beds filled at all times. We just hit that with the inclusion of the Alabama ladies," LCS President Patrick LeBlanc said. He's an architect from Lafayette, 40 miles of rice fields and crawfish ponds southeast of Basile.

The 1,000-bed prison had been down to 600 inmates. In response, LCS laid off 24 officers.

Still, the incarceration rates highest in the country of LeBlanc's home state have been a boon to his company. LCS grossed $15 million last year operating five prisons in Texas and Louisiana. During part of the 1990s, Louisiana needed 60 new prison beds a week. "For a while in Louisiana, it was crazy, it was nuts. It was definitely nuts," LeBlanc said.

LCS and the State of Alabama can house prisoners cheaply, and creatively make money off them. But LCS, a company founded by a family of architects, does both better.

For the short run, private companies like this will be in Alabama's future.

Easing Tutwiler's load:

The Alabama Department of Corrections responded, in part, to a scathing federal court order to improve conditions at Tutwiler by paying LCS $24 per inmate per day. The state has no money to build prisons and must find space for 600 male inmates in response to another court order.

In some ways, the LCS prison is safer and more comfortable than Tutwiler. It is air-conditioned, chilly even, to keep tempers calm, company officials say. It is less crowded. The 140 women have elbow room in their four Tiger dorms with 168-bed capacity. Tutwiler was unconstitutionally crowded at triple capacity.

To pass the time, there is a volleyball net in the yard, and a television and microwave in each dorm, perks that Harbison and LeBlanc show off in tours.

The commissary sells microwave popcorn for $1.09 a bag, among dozens of items sold at 25 percent markup to make money. A pack of Marlboros is $4.99. RC Cola is 76 cents.

LCS buildings some are prefabricated steel, some concrete block are designed with windowed control centers overlooking housing areas. Cameras and windows slash the number of officers needed. Alabama's antiquated cellblocks have no such technology.

LeBlanc says he can build a prison for about 25 percent less than a state agency can. With a private company there is none of the government inefficiency of bidding and overseeing contracts.

The company targets struggling, job-hungry towns, of which there is no shortage in southwest Louisiana. Median household income here in Evangeline Parish was $20,532, according to the 2000 census. More than 32 percent of people live in poverty.

"The rural area is a better fit for these types of operations. Your labor pool is pretty good. Expectations for salaries are not as high in rural areas as in urban areas," LeBlanc said.

Starting pay for an LCS guard, or corrections officer, is $7 an hour. Alabama starts officers at about $11 an hour.

The company also doesn't invest in much education, rehabilitation or health care. The Basile prison won't house prisoners with chronic illnesses. The prison has two teachers for 850 prisoners, a fraction of Tutwiler's teaching staff.

Alabama's contract does not require LCS to provide classes or GED preparation, but company officials say they will anyway. Although it's a for-profit company, LCS secured a $22,000 government grant for computers where GED students can work at their own pace.

"We haven't gotten the Alabama ladies in at this point, but it's coming shortly," Harbison said.

Some feel punished:

Several things are coming shortly.

The room Harbison identified as the law library was cluttered with pillows and pieces of ducts. LCS is awaiting a computer and a disc containing Alabama state statutes to complete the law library, he said.

Herein lies one of the concerns from the women and their families. Jobs, classes and programs have come to a halt in Basile. Many prisoners sent here were model prisoners with no disciplinary problems; private prison companies try to avoid high-maintenance troublemakers. Some women with jobs or nearing parole got shipped here. They say they feel like they've been punished for trying to better themselves.

"I had my own little office, the computer, the filing cabinet," said Quincey Beckwith, 34, of Florence, serving a 20-year sentence for manslaughter. Before being sent here, Beckwith was living in Tutwiler's annex, formerly a work-release center. She worked as a Correctional Industries clerk, and saw her sons once a month.

"I'm here and we don't have anything to do. When we have idle time, the devil sneaks in," she said.

LCS officials say that with three days' notice, they will allow family visits. For the women, separation from children is the worst punishment.

"My kids are the only thing that's helped me make it this 2½ years, the only thing that's kept me going," said Kristie Godsey, 30, in for car theft.

It's a day's drive from her hometown of Cullman to Basile, and her parents have not been able to bring her daughters for a visit. "How did we get chosen? We were the good inmates," Godsey said.

Many escape stories:

Most everyone in Basile snickers with an escape story from the prison's early days.

"For a while, they were breaking out pretty regularly," said Roderick Christ, who owns a rice farm about a mile from the prison. Once an escapee was caught near his place.

Allen Ivory, the no-nonsense police chief whose son is a shift captain at the prison, talks about the escapes. But he doesn't snicker.

"It would be unfair to say we haven't had our problems," Ivory said. He's also investigated drug crimes at the prison.

Security has improved. "The administration, they are very competent people," Ivory said.

Some prisoners contribute free labor, Ivory said. Last week, they poured concrete for handicapped parking spaces. At Christmastime, prisoners repaired bicycles for children.

The big event in Basile remains the Louisiana Swine Festival, founded in 1966 to promote the town's pig farms. The pig industry has moved elsewhere, but the festival lives on, featuring a greasy pig contest and crowning of the Louisiana Swine Festival Queen.

The prison has not provided an economic boost to Basile, a farming town of 2,100. Many of the 135 employees commute from surrounding areas.

"It hasn't made a difference for our town. The salaries are not good enough," said Casper Johnson, 71. His barbershop, Casper's Tonsorial Parlor, has been in the same spot 53 years. Most businesses lining the main street, Stagg Avenue, have closed.

Farther down Stagg, past clapboard houses and an auto salvage lot heavy on Camaros, sits the prison. Its closest neighbor is the Basile Rice Drier and Storage Facility, with 65-foot-tall rust-speckled sheetmetal storage bins.

Mary Wall, secretary at the facility, was the prison's office manager from 1993 to 1997, when it was smaller and lacked the razor-wire-topped double-fenced perimeter.

She pushed for classes and books for the inmates. "I felt like it was a waste of our taxpayers' money just to have them sit there," she said.

The company spent little on extras, so she visited school districts and collected out-of-date textbooks. "I'd go beg, borrow and steal anything I could get," Wall said. "We had inmates who cared enough to try, which, to me, was great because we didn't have jobs for them."

A learning curve:

Alabama corrections officials and the LeBlancs agree there has been a learning curve at LCS, both in terms of security and the treatment of the imprisoned. Both have vastly improved since the late 1990s.

"That's why you do the air conditioner, the color TV and as many activities as possible to have something else to think of besides `I'm in jail, I'm in prison,' and along the way, sometimes they better themselves," LeBlanc said. A big difference between Tutwiler and the Basile prison: There are male inmates here. Employees are careful to keep the sexes separate.

"Anytime there's any male movement, all females are locked down. Anytime there's any female movement, all males are locked down. We don't want any little inmates," Harbison said.

With this contract, Alabama joins about 30 other states housing inmates in for-profit prisons. Southern states contribute more than any other region to the explosion in privatization, with 40,917 of the country's 86,626 private-prison inmates from the South, according to a 2002 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Although crime has dropped in recent years, the number of people in prison has not.

"We're certainly trying to develop new beds and new markets," LeBlanc said. "People can quit committing crimes, but you've got a whole lot of people who are in there for long sentences."

LeBlanc says he has few worries about keeping his beds full.

"If you get soft on crime, you don't get re-elected. Every legislator is scared to death to be seen in the public eye as someone who is soft on crime," he said.
Monica Danielle
On September 22, 2003, my better half came home after 657 days in an Alabama prison!!!

And he's now forever free - passing away from this life and into the next - on January 9, 2010.

My Sweet Wayne
January 21, 1954 - January 9, 2010

I'll always love you.
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Old 05-12-2003, 04:44 PM
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~cheenna~ ~cheenna~ is offline
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Monica ... is there a chance Wayne will be affected by this?
Gosh, I hope not, maybe newer buildings but no visits(?) that's sad ...

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
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