All of the beds in the parish jail are occupied.
What is the price of safety?
There is a major problem brewing between the Vermilion Parish Police Jury and the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office. The end result could lead to a Sheriff guard being injured in the parish jail or criminals not being arrested because there is no more room in the parish jail.
The Vermilion Parish jail was opened in 1983 and it first held 49 prisoners. Over time, a special dormitory, not connected to the jail, was built to house another 48 prisoners, bringing the capacity to 150 prisoners.
Police Jury: Less overflow prisoners
When the parish prison is full, new arrests (pre-trial inmates) have to be sent all over the state to other jails. Those inmates are called overflow prisoners.
The Police Jury, not the Sheriff’s Office, is responsible for paying to house overflow prisoners. Due to the large amount of overflow prisoners in 2016, the Police Jury had to pay $750,000 to other state prisons to house overflow prisoners.
The number of overflow prisoners fluctuates from 10 to 50 a day, depending on how much crime is committed.
The Police Jury pays the other prisons $25 per day to house pretrial inmates.
If there are 50 overflow pretrial inmates scattered throughout the state, it is costing taxpayers $1,250 a day.
Because of the cost and the large amount of overflow pre-trial inmates, the Police Jury put a limit on how many overflow pretrial inmates the Police Jury will pay for. The jury told Sheriff Mike Couvillion the limit is only 20, starting in March.
Col. Kirk Frith, the warden of the jail, attended a police jury finance committee meeting Wednesday to try to convince the jurors to increase the overflow pretrial inmates amount to at least 50. He said 20 is not realistic.
By limiting the number to only 20 overflow inmates, law enforcement in Vermilion Parish may have to cease arresting people because there will be no more place to put new inmates in the parish jail.
Because of that, criminals will be able to walk the streets of the parish, Frith told the jurors. Frith said law enforcement can not stop arresting people because the jail is full. The amount of crime on the streets dictates how many arrests are made each day, he said.
Less DOC prisoners, less money
The parish jail once housed at least 60 Department of Correctional Prisoners (DOC) and the state would pay the Sheriff’s Office $25 per day per prisoner to house them. A DOC prisoner is a prisoner who has already been sentenced and is serving his or her time in the parish jail. They also cook and wash prisoners uniforms during their stay.
The Sheriff’s Office benefited from DOC prisoners because they were used to pick up trash along side of parish roads. They also planted a large garden next to the jail. The food grown in the garden was cooked in the jail.
Frith said because of limit of 20 overflow prisoners, the Sheriff’s Office quit housing DOC prisoners to make room for new arrests. With less DOC prisoners, the Sheriff’s Office lost $400,000 a year revenue from the state. The Sheriff also stopped road side cleanup and the garden program ended due to a decrease in DOC inmates.
Dangers in a dormitory
The jail has only 22 DOC prisoners today and that number could decrease to zero in the next month, Frith said.
Pre-trial inmates are now having to be housed in the 48-prisoner dormitory at the parish jail. Frith told the jurors that DOC prisoners are well behaved in the dorm because they don’t want to be shipped to state prisons. With inmates who are awaiting trial, they are more dangerous because they don’t care, said Frith.
“These are offenders coming from the street and should not be in a dormitory,” Frith told the jurors. “We are using those beds and the number is 48 inmates to one guard. I am uncomfortable housing 48 inmates to one guard.
“The first time I get something that threatens the safety of my guards in the dormitory, that dorm will shut down. We will go from 150 prisoners to 102. I am not going to risk the life of a guard.”
Frith wanted the jurors to know that the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office has a crises on its hands because of where Sheriff Couvillon is having to house the pre-trial inmates. Frith had hoped the police jury would vote to increase the overflow count from 20 to 50 in March, but that did not happen.
“We understands the police jury has a financial crises. We get that,” Frith said. “But ya’ll need to understand that law enforcement agencies in this parish are being impacted. When we have to tell an agency we can’t make an arrest because the jail is full and we can’t push out the overflow, that is affecting public safety.”
Some police jurors wanted to know what other parishes are doing to solve their overflow problem. Frith said he works in Vermilion Parish and does not know what other parishes are doing.
Police Juror Mark Poché told Frith the Police Jury budgeted $1.6 million to run the parish jail in 2017. That is the same amount of money as last year.
“Unfortunately for us, the amount of people we have arrested has increased,” Poché said.
Guards, public in danger?
Frith reinstated that Sheriff Couvillon wanted the jurors to know about the dangers his guards are putting themselves in working in the dormitory with 40 pre-trial inmates.
“Public safety needs to be put first,” said Frith.
“You keep talking about this as a safety issue,” Poché said. “Bad roads are a safety issue. We get sued every year because they hit a hole. A bad road is a safety issue. A prison is a safety issue. They are all safety issues. We have to quit taking from Peter to pay Paul. We have to let the tax payers decide.”
Poché recommended putting a special tax dedicated to overflow prisoners on the October ballot. October is a long time away, Frith said. He also did not like comparing the safety issue of a pot hole to a felony prisoner walking the streets or beating up a parish guard.
“I have a different opinion than Mr. Poché that a pot hole is equal to taking a felony offender off the street,” Frith said after the meeting.