19 sent back to jail after work-release shakedown

The state Department of Corrections and Public Safety conducted an early-morning shakedown raid Sunday at a Covington work-release facility that houses state inmates, according to the facility’s director, and 19 inmates were sent back to St. Tammany Parish Jail for violating state regulations.

The shakedown was the second at the facility in the last two weeks, according to director Lester Mitchell.

Northshore Workforce Solutions, the privately owned company that runs the program, had the highest number of escapes of any work-release program in the state in 2013.

It has been the subject of recent reports by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV that have focused on accusations of lax oversight at the facility, including two drug-related deaths of inmates and claims by a former inmate that he was allowed to sleep off-site for much of his time in the program, a violation of DOC rules.

Mitchell said shakedowns are not unusual and are always unannounced. He said the 19 inmates found in violation of rules represent only 10 percent of the work-release facility’s population, but he acknowledged that Sunday’s visit was the first time that many violations had been found.

“This morning for the second time in two weeks the Department of Corrections and the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office conducted a comprehensive search of Northshore Workforce facility,’’ Mitchell said in an email.

Drug dogs and physical searches in the first inspection turned up only one contraband item, a homemade tattoo gun, he said.

“During this morning’s search every participant in the facility was drug screened and every inch of the facility was searched physically and with K-9 drug dogs,’’ Mitchell said.

Of the 190 offenders who were tested, 13 failed their drug screening, three had contraband in their possession and three could not submit a urine sample.

The items of contraband were two cellphones and a small amount of what appeared to be synthetic marijuana, Mitchell said.

“No Northshore Workforce owner, management or staff were aware of either inspection until the Sheriff’s Office and Department of Corrections arrived at the facility,’’ he said. “Northshore Workforce is committed to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Corrections and following the regulations they set.’’

Northshore Workforce Solutions is a transitional work-release program that allows inmates nearing the end of their sentences to work at regular jobs while still spending the night confined in the facility. The company was formed in 2008 by private businessmen who have ties to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, including Marlin Peachey, Strain’s campaign treasurer. Strain awarded Northshore the contract without seeking formal bids.

The program gets a share of the per-diem allowance paid to the sheriff by the state for each inmate and also keeps 62 percent of their wages or $63.50 a day, whichever is less.

Department of Corrections officials could not be reached for comment Sunday, but the facility seems to be under scrutiny.

Sunday’s raid involved about 40 officers, including those from DOC and the Department of Probation and Parole, Mitchell said.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman George Bonnett said deputies also were involved.

Asked whether Strain considered the high number of violations found an indication that there are management problems at the facility and whether he plans any action, Bonnett said, via text message, “That *was* an action. It was a coordinated effort to ensure full compliance at the facility.’’

Sunday’s sweep of the facility came just days after an inmate was arrested for aggravated burglary in a break-in at his ex-girlfriend’s home near Mandeville. Joshua Ponseti was found at his workplace and arrested Wednesday.

The names and violations of those who were sent back to jail during the sweep were not released Sunday.