BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is seeking another $34 million to cover Louisiana prison costs this year, prompting questions from state lawmakers who have seen continued requests for infusions of cash for corrections charges annually.
The Democratic governor’s budget office included the request for additional funding in a presentation Thursday at a meeting of the joint House and Senate budget committee.
Republican lawmakers noted that a package of bipartisan sentencing law changes passed three years ago was supposed to save Louisiana money by shrinking the prison population. But Louisiana continues to have the highest incarceration rate in the nation.
Sen. Bodi White, the GOP chairman of the joint committee, called on the corrections department to bring lawmakers a plan “for how you’re going to stop” the repeated budget gaps.
“It’s the same thing. I’ve been hearing it for years,” White said. Later, he added: “It just looks like we can never get our head above water.”
The Edwards administration request for the budget year that ends June 30 seeks more than $18 million for the Department of Corrections to fill budget holes and nearly $16 million to pay parish sheriffs for housing state inmates in their local jails. Lawmakers will consider whether to cover the costs in the legislative session that begins March 9.
Thomas Bickham, the chief financial officer for the Department of Corrections, said this year’s $592 million budget for the agency didn’t include enough money to cover the overtime costs of the department, pharmaceutical costs for inmates or repairs to prison facilities.
“We have one individual in our system that costs us $3.7 million a year in pharmaceutical costs. That’s just eating us up right now,” Bickham said. “We (were given) zero dollars in major repairs and acquisitions, and sometimes we just have to fix things.”
Meanwhile, a separate pot of money set aside in the budget to pay sheriffs for taking in-state inmates didn’t fully cover a per-day rate increase that lawmakers approved and underestimated how many prisoners would be housed in local jails, according to Bickham.
Rep. Dewith Carrier, a Republican from Oakdale, asked about the inmate with the skyrocketing medication costs: “Why don’t y’all just let him out?”
Bickham replied that the man’s crime and sentence prohibit his release, without providing further details.
Lawmakers said they wanted to find ways to better prepare for the costs of Louisiana’s prison system when the budget is crafted. Bickham noted the agency often receives less money than it requests, even though he argued the department is boxed into certain spending levels, because it must feed, house and care for the inmates — in a way that is safe to guards and prisoners.
Bickham pointed to Mississippi, which has been struggling to respond to deadly prison violence.
“Mississippi, there are parts of their prisons they shut down at night. And there’s nobody in there watching them. We don’t want to end up that way,” Bickham said.
At least 18 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since late December, many amid outbursts of violence in facilities that are sparsely staffed. The Justice Department is investigating conditions.
Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican, was sympathetic to one of the corrections department’s problems, a high turnover rate among prison guards that drives up overtime costs.
A pay raise for corrections officers three years ago hasn’t done enough to stem the problem, Bickham said. He said the agency has more than 400 vacant positions.
“This is a hard job. And that pay, it’s low,” he said. “It’s hard to attract people. It’s hard to retain people.”
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