Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s prisoner re-entry program moves to largely vacant Plaquemines Parish jail

The state re-entry program that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman pulled the plug on last month has found a new home at the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center — a largely vacant lockup that still has hundreds of empty beds.

More than 100 state prisoners nearing the end of their terms who previously were housed in New Orleans have been moved to the sprawling facility near Pointe à la Hache, where Sheriff Lonnie Greco intends to expand the Southeast Regional Re-entry Program.

Gusman, who credited the re-entry program with reducing recidivism rates among participants, announced last month he could no longer keep the prisoners due to a critical manpower shortage at the new $150 million jail in New Orleans.

The program had long been a bone of contention between the sheriff and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose administration questioned the prudence of housing state prisoners at the city’s troubled jail, especially since Gusman had shipped hundreds of local inmates awaiting trial off to jails in northeast Louisiana because of lack of room and deputies to guard them.

The move left the state prisoners without a facility to complete a curriculum designed to reduce the risk they will commit new crimes upon their release.

Enter Plaquemines Parish, where officials have struggled to recruit state and federal prisoners to occupy a new 210,000-square-foot detention center that opened last year. The massive facility has 871 beds — several times more than needed to accommodate the local inmate population.

The detention center, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, replaced a lockup inundated by Hurricane Katrina. The parish had expanded its jail capacity under former Sheriff Jiff Hingle, who insisted the new lockup be rebuilt at the same site as the facility washed away by the storm.

The state-of-the-art jail sits 19 feet off the ground, as dictated by new federal rules for flood zones, and has an array of fancy security features. There’s even a wood-floor basketball court for inmates.

But federal and state officials have been hesitant to send prisoners to Plaquemines Parish, in large part due to its low-lying location and the potential headache of evacuations in the event of future storms.

“This building is 40 miles south of everywhere,” said Cmdr. Terry Rutherford, of the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The detention center recently took in a few dozen inmates from Tangipahoa Parish. But Plaquemines Parish has had an easier time landing filmmaking projects at the new lockup than attracting out-of-parish prisoners.

The Sheriff’s Office mothballed the northern wing of the jail, Rutherford said, but “we’ve actually put that to use and had three film projects there.”

One of the projects was the Tom Cruise movie “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.”

“We just finished an independent film known as ‘Heart, Baby!’ ” Rutherford added, noting that the projects have brought “about $100,000 of income into the prison.”

Rutherford said Greco’s vision for the oversized detention center is to devote as much of it as possible to rehabilitation. Prisoners completing the re-entry program, he said, will be rehabbed in a way not dissimilar to the plight of the parish jail itself.

“It’s total destruction to total rehabilitation,” Rutherford said.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian .

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