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6 years after only women’s prison in La. flooded, a new one is being built

Costing about $150 million, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women will meet the unique needs of female inmates

By Jacqueline Derobertis
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

ST. GABRIEL, La. — In the six years since Louisiana’s only prison for women flooded, the state’s female inmates have been scattered across various facilities that weren’t built for them.

Now, work is underway to build a new prison designed specifically to rehabilitate them.

Construction has started on the new campus for the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women years after it was inundated with floodwaters in August of 2016. Officials said at a Thursday groundbreaking ceremony that the facility layout will meet the unique needs of female inmates.

The 280,000 square-foot campus will include an administration building, medical and mental health building, two dormitories, educational building, vo-tech building, gymnasium, kitchen, postpartum building and a maintenance warehouse, according to a website summary from Caddell, an Alabama-based company partnering with Baton Rouge construction firm Arkel on the project.

“Today’s groundbreaking marks the end of a very trying season for both the staff and the females houesd at LCIW,” said Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy Le Blanc. “The LCIW flood brought many challenges, but it also created an opportunity for us to design and build a new space that will help us better carry out our reform mission and transform the individuals we incarcerate.”

After the prison was declared uninhabitable in 2016, Louisiana’s roughly 1,000 women prisoners have been housed in temporary quarters. Some have been held at the nearby Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a men’s facility in St. Gabriel, while others have been kept at the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, a shuttered juvenile lockup.

Costing about $150 million, the campus to be built on the west side of Elayn Hunt will contain 938 beds and take about two and a half years to complete. Critically, it will be built to withstand a 500 year flood while not exacerbating flooding issues in the area, officials said.

The facility will provide for vocational training, education and skill certification for cosmetology, horticulture, welding and heavy equipment operating, among other pursuits.

It is the first state prison to be built in more than three decades.

Officials spent much of their remarks during the groundbreaking recounting the trauma of the 2016 flood and acknowledging the project has taken longer than they had hoped to start.

“The wheels can move really slowly sometimes on recovery,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards.

He also alluded to supply chain issues and inflation caused by the pandemic that dramatically increased the cost to build the facility. Edwards defended the final price tag, emphasizing that he was “not going to build a second-rate facility,” but rather one that is “state of the art.”

Natalie LaBorde, DOC executive counsel, explained how the Women’s Incarceration Task Force established in 2018 contributed substantially to the project.

The task force explored issues such as domestic violence that LaBorde said “often leads women into the criminal justice system,” alongside models of family reunification, mental healthcare needs and the LGBTQ experience while incarcerated.

Their recommendations were published in a 2020 report.

“So much in that report and what we recommended both on a policy level and a legislative level hinge on having the appropriate space to facilitate that,” LaBorde said.

For example, LaBorde realized in the course of her work for the task force, which she chaired, that DOC inmates who give birth behind bars only have about one day to spend with their babies. This is largely because there were not spaces designed to “facilitate bonding,” she said.

That should change with the addition of a postpartum building. Although nothing has been finalized, LaBorde said they are looking at the possibility of a new mother spending 12 weeks to six months with their newborn, with a transition plan in place when that time comes to an end.

A team is planning to go to other states to see how different facilities manage mother and baby care, she said.

State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat, called the facility “a win-win,” both in terms of providing safety for corrections officers and a modern campus for the women incarcerated there. She added that officials have been educated over the years to better understand what kind of support women behind bars need in order to thrive — and the extenuating circumstances that landed them there.

“Women are stuck in a lot of these situations because of domestic violence,” she said. “Some of them just did not have good reprsentation to begin with, so they end up here, many of them for defending themselves. [They] are not really bad people.”

Timothy Wilkinson, a former inmate at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, attended the groundbreaking. He said women are not intentionally overlooked in the state prison system, but they make up such a small fraction of the more than 26,000 people in state prisons that “they miss out on a lot of things.”

“This is not just a new facility to add more peope to prison,” he said. “It’s going to continue the steps and the growth that the department has help make people ready to come back into society.”