Jail Rehab | WP jail officials look to remedy unacceptable conditions, trim budget

Published 1:17 am Sunday, July 8, 2012

Aging and years of neglect from past administrations for a variety of reasons have left the Washington Parish Jail with unsightly scars, ranging from exposed wiring to insufficient cooling and heating systems, in some cases unsanitary conditions and several inmates sleeping on the floor.

It’s not the ideal scenario for incoming Warden Robert McDaniel and Chief Deputy Mike Haley to inherit but they understand the predicament and are committed to making sweeping changes. Haley and McDaniel are key components of the new administrative team for Sheriff Randy Seal, who was sworn in Monday.

“Much less than desirable,” Haley said, assessing the current status of the jail. “Sanitation doesn’t meet my standard, the level of supervision doesn’t meet my standard, overall maintenance doesn’t meet my standard.

“These are things we will work on.”

But he and McDaniel are already leaving their mark. Less than 72 hours officially on the job, additional staff have been added, a previously unstaffed area that oversees all four cell blocks is being manned by a deputy 24 hours a day, and key cell doors and gates are now being locked, where previously they remained open.

Most important, however, is a late-night search Monday of the jail that turned up contraband and even a weapon. Seal said one of the goals of the search and seizure was to send a message to inmates that transgressions of the past will be tolerated no longer.

According to both Haley and McDaniel, those are just baby steps. Their plans are ambitious but the veteran law enforcement officials also comprehend the budget restraints, especially considering the current financial challenges the parish is facing.

“The parish is responsible for the maintenance of the building,” Haley noted. “But the parish and the District Attorney’s office have bent over backwards to help us. But they are struggling.”

So Haley is searching for ways to be fiscally responsible, hoping to loosen up funds from one area to transfer to another that will ultimately lead to a more secure jail and more deputies on the street.

One of the areas Haley is looking at trimming is the transporting of prisoners to area courtrooms for hearings or to clinics or physician’s offices for medical treatment. As a start, plans are to turn an empty room into a conference room where attorneys can have private consultations with their clients.

Along with that privacy, Haley said he plans to make the software program Skype available so inmate hearings can be conducted via the Internet with the judge, thus cutting back on transporting costs.

Haley is also in discussion with officials from LSU Bogalusa Medical Center regarding the feasibility of having a registered nurse on site for 40 hours a week to provide some immediate medical care. Part of that proposal would also have physicians, likely residents of LSUBMC’s renowned residency program, also spending time at the jail.

“This will cut down on the costs of doctors’ visits along with paying for transporting inmates to seek medical attention,” Haley said, adding that those costs often include overtime for deputies. “We can meet their medical needs here and that will be less expense for the parish.”

McDaniel quickly interjected that keeping the inmates on the premises as much as possible will also reduce the possibility of illegal contraband being smuggled into the facility.

Their immediate needs, though, are to correct some conditions they deem unacceptable. In one cell housing three inmates, the common commode has not worked in six weeks, according to inmates, leaving an unsightly and unsanitary condition. The inmates are confined to that cell for a little more than six hours each day, creating even more of a health hazard.

Additionally, many of the shower curtains are old mattress covers that are now stained by mold.

McDaniel, who has spent time working at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and at Rayburn Correctional Center, said about 15 inmates per day are sleeping on the floor so he ordered 200 new mattresses, meaning all 160 inmates, which include 21 females, should soon be enjoying a better night’s sleep.

He and Haley also plan to offer inmates an hour in the exercise yard, a luxury that was only happening perhaps once a month, according to deputies.

“We will get them out in the yard every day,” Haley said. “Now, they are in the cell 24 hours a day.”

Although many of the changes are targeted toward upgrading living conditions, inmates are expected to act appropriately, and those who do not will be dealt with accordingly, McDaniel said. In an impromptu meeting with inmates in one of the cellblocks Monday, McDaniel asked patience from the inmates as improvements are completed but that he expects their behavior to be exemplary.

And if not?

“If you’ve never been to Angola, get ready,” he said.

With that he walked away, jumping back on the long road that lay ahead.