By Tierra Smith
BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana Statehouse is in the hands of criminals – and it’s not who first comes to mind.
Every weekday, state correctional officers transport about 40 Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI) inmates 30 miles from the Jackson, La., facility to the Louisiana State Capitol. The DIC inmates keep the Statehouse looking good, functioning and fed.
Some work in the dining hall, others clean bathrooms, hallways and offices, others in adjoining state government buildings. Still others look after the sprawling grounds and nearby Governor’s Mansion. There are correctional officers in the background. Even when not in session, there is a small crew.
The inmates working in the Capitol are leveled Class A or minimum security. DIC also has Class B (medium) and Class C (maximum security) inmates that can’t leave the premise.
Tricia Bruno, spouse of co-owner of the Louisiana House Dining Hall, the cafeteria-like breakfast and lunch spot on the ground floor of the 34-story capitol building, says the inmates “keep the Capitol going.”
Yet, the inmates get the shortest end of the stick. Some legislatures agree. Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, is working on legislation that would help the rehabilitation of inmates. He wants to rework the system to allow the revenues obtained from inmate work to help pay off the inmates’ court fees and offset prison-housing fees.
“I want the money to go where it’s best needed,” said Hunter.
Right now, the money is used to fund Prison Enterprises, the moneymaking arm of the Department of Corrections and private companies such as the Louisiana House Dining Hall.
The Louisiana House Dining Hall
The Louisiana House Dining Hall uses about a half dozen inmates, who prep, cook, serve and clean up. They also have five other employees. Some other inmates work at the banquet-style, exclusive dining hall for the House of Representative members and staff.
Bruno said the inmates come ready to work and learn.
“We are teaching (the inmates) a trade or skill,” said Bruno. “So when they get out they can get a job and have a career.”
Yet, the inmates working at cafeteria comprise a small portion of the daily contingent of inmate workers. The rest are placed by Prison Enterprises, which started in 1983. Those inmates maintain the grounds and clean the Capitol.
Prison Enterprise Director Michael Moore said the benefits of using inmates, included providing work opportunities for the inmates, are saving the state money, and inmates’ experiencing an 8-hour workday.
The Legislature pays Prison Enterprises for the grounds and maintenance of the capitol grounds. The third biggest portion of the budget goes to prisons services, according to Hunter.
The state projects it will pay Prison Enterprise $158,000 this fiscal year for the Statehouse grounds maintenance. For the entire Capitol Park area ground works, which includes 16 buildings, the charge is $433,000.
There is also a bill close to $2 million for the janitorial cost of the entire Capitol grounds. Alone, it will cost $101,000 for the Statehouse.
While the state is dishing money, Pam Laborde, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections says Prison Enterprise annually saves the state approximately $2.8 million in janitorial services alone.
The state saves money this way, but only because prisoners are paid a pittance for their services. Think the highest paid inmate making $3.20 for an 8-hour shift.
Under Louisiana law, inmates who work with Prison Enterprise are be paid between 20 cents to 40 cents an hour, depending on skill, industry and nature of work. Before said that most DCI inmates also earn “good time” credits, which reduces sentencing.
Many legislatures believe that the last person benefiting from this system is the inmate.
Hunter wants to use the benefits and revenues made from the inmates’ labor to offset prison housing and court fees. The money should first support the inmates, and the prison industry second, he explained.
“Louisiana taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for inmates’ housing,” said Hunter.
He wants the money to go towards housing, court cost and Crime Victims Reparation Fund. After pay those, the money could be used for education such as trade school or a GED.
The law states that slavery and involuntary servitude is prohibited, except for punishment of crime. One example of involuntary servitude is inmate labor.
Hunter has two ways to reroute revenues from inmate labor. He proposed HB186, a constitutional amendment to eliminate involuntary servitude prohibition except for punishment of crime, which would require a vote of the people.
Or the less restrictive option is to redefine the word punishment and create a statute that would allow the proceeds for inmates’ work to be used for the rehabilitation of the inmates.
Hunter said there would be a “tremendous offset” in the money that the state pays to house the inmates for parish and private inmates.
He wants to provide inmates with a clean financial state when they get out of jail, free from owing money to probation, parole and other court fees. In some cases, inmates return to jail due to failure to pay fees once released.
“This may affect the bottom life of some of the local prisons,” said Hunter, who has two prisons, Ouachita Correctional Center and Ridgewood Correctional Center, and one hospital that treats inmates in his district.
But, Hunter believes this is the “corner stone” of the state’s criminal justice reform.
“We are going to cut health care and education, but there is little mention of cutting prisons,” he said. “This is a method that could help change that.”