Inside Report: Parish prison shows its age in rare forms

The cockroach’s life ended swiftly, cut short by a thick shoe sole inside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

Warden Dennis Crimes squashed the bug in stride and its appearance led us to wonder what brought the critter to our feet. Ultimately, we agreed the many leaky water pipes weaving through the out-of-date lockup made the facility an inviting home for roaches, which are often in search of moist environments.

Although jailhouses don’t typically welcome their guests, roaches appear to be one of the few beneficiaries of the parish prison’s aging infrastructure. Not too surprisingly, Lt. Col. Grimes certainly doesn’t prefer it that way.

He’d likely bulldoze the building himself in exchange for a new facility.

“We need a jail,” he said. “We need a jail bad.”

He used the term jail as a synonym for the parish prison, a facility originally built in the 1960s. An additional wing was built on the prison campus — across the street from the Metro Airport — in the 1980s.

“It is not adequate, and it’s getting worse and worse every day,” Grimes said.

For years, the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the parish prison, has lobbied unsuccessfully for a new slammer. More than $100 million in funding was allocated in city-parish tax proposals to build a facility on at least two occasions.

The plans died young.

During a recent tour of the parish prison, in which Grimes served as a guide, he pointed out the various deficiencies with the building’s setup.

Walking down one hallway, group cells crop up on either side. The cells in that hallway house between eight and 24 people each. Other living situations vary from solitary to two-person cells to larger rooms occupied by a few dozen bunk beds and accompanying inmates.

But from that one hallway, it’s difficult to see inside each cell in the group. Walls situated just on the other side of the bars serving as doors to the cells prohibit a clear view to much of the action inside the group cells.

To properly oversee those prisoners, the warden would have to place a guard inside every cell. That is neither practical nor economical, he said.

The setup marked one of the many security issues of the present design highlighted by Grimes during the tour.

For example, visitors must walk deep into the prison, in some cases, to speak to inmates via telephone while separated by glass windows. The setup makes the parish prison vulnerable to contraband, Grimes said.

In a perfect world, he would construct a building not connected to the prison where visitors could chat with inmates via videoconference. The switch would likely reduce the amount of contraband smuggled into the parish prison, Grimes said.

“It’s a security issue,” he said.

In addition to security issues, the Sheriff’s Office spends millions of dollars a year to house the 600 to 700 inmates at a cost of about $25 a day per inmate, Grimes said.

As for the roaches — I saw two on the tour — they’re not really a problem as much as the pipes that attract them. The parish prison is not infested with insects or rodents, Grimes said, although some former inmates have publicly stated otherwise.

In the event of a move, though, I don’t think anyone would mind if the roaches were left behind.

Ben Wallace covers law enforcement for The Advocate. He can be reached at bwallace@theadvocate.com or on Twitter, @_BenWallace.