Escape could mean changes for crews

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 2, 1999

VIDALIA, La. – Last Monday afternoon, eight state prisoners took a break from clearing trees near the Mississippi River to eat lunch. The Concordia Parish corrections officer supervising the crew went to his truck for about five minutes. When he came back, prisoner Travis John Dupre had escaped.

Officers caught Dupre 29 hours later and more than 130 miles away, in Houma. By 11 a.m. Wednesday Dupre was back at the Concordia Parish Correctional Facility. And he won’t be working in the sunshine again until he is released from jail – which will now be eight or more years in the future.

But the escape has changed more than Dupre’s fate. It is leading the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office to revise its policies concerning work crews. And considering the amount of work those crews do throughout the parish, those changes could be far-reaching indeed.

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Given the number of prisoners Concordia Parish has on work crews – 100 to 150, depending on the number of projects they are doing – the odds are that an escape will happen again, said Sheriff Randy Maxwell.

&uot;But we’ll do everything we can to keep an escape from happening,&uot;&160;he said.

A variety of projects

Concordia Parish has used prisoners on work crews for at least 10 years, Maxwell said. Projects have ranged from mowing public rights-of-way to painting Vidalia’s town hall and police station to helping set up tents for the annual Jim Bowie Festival.

The Concordia Parish Police Jury’s recycling project uses three or four prisoners that work up to three days a week.

While their supervisor drives the truck that hauls the cardboard and paper to the central recycling bin, prisoners load and unload the cargo and bale it to be resold, said Juror Charlie Blaney.

&uot;We don’t have the money to pay labor ourselves, so we would have to shut the recycling program down if we didn’t use the prisoners,&uot;&160;Blaney said.

&uot;We don’t have enough city employees to do all the work they do,&uot;&160;said Maureen &uot;Mo&uot; Saunders, a member of the Vidalia Board of Aldermen. There, crews keep rights-of-way pruned and free of litter and clean debris from ditches, among other projects.

&uot;They fix food boxes for us, and sometimes during the week they (unload) … 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of food,&uot;&160;said Linda Bonnette, director of Feed the Hungry, a Vidalia nonprofit group.

&uot;They carry the boxes to the people’s cars, clean out freezers, sweep and mop … anything we ask them to do.&uot;

Standards for workers, supervisors

Work crew prisoners are selected carefully, Maxwell said. They must be state prisoners (which means they have already been sentenced) who are already settled into the prison routine.

Only those who volunteer for work duty are put on the crews. And prisoners who have been convicted of violent offenses or who break prison rules are not eligible.

&uot;If I&160;have to chain a prisoner or have an officer on a horse with a shotgun pointed at (the prisoner), a prisoner that dangerous doesn’t need to be out there in the first place,&uot;&160;Maxwell said.

Those who supervise the crews are also held to certain standards. Supervisors are correctional officers, and each one can only supervise up to eight prisoners at a time.

If a prisoner on a crew begins causing trouble, the supervisor is supposed to load the crew into the truck and drive them back to prison immediately.

&uot;These officers know that if somebody they’re supervising gets out and hurts somebody, I’ll charge (the supervisors) and put them in jail, too,&uot;&160;Maxwell said.

Towns that &uot;borrow&uot;&160;prisoners for work projects provide their own personnel to supervise those crews.

Work crew policies could change

Despite the manpower the crews provide and the restrictions already placed upon them, Dupre’s escape has caused the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office to look more closely at its policies regarding work crews.

Prison work crews will not be working again until an in-house investigation into the escape is complete, which will probably happen this week.

One problem is that when prison officials choose prisoners for the crews, they look at a prisoner’s criminal record, which only includes offenses for which the person was convicted.

Less than seven months before he escaped from the Concordia Parish crew, Dupre had led Terrebonne Parish deputies on a three-parish car chase. But he was not convicted on the resulting charges, so they did not show up on his record.

So Maxwell is now considering calling the sheriff and district attorney in the area from which a prisoner was transferred to see if there are other off-the-record incidents that need to be taken into consideration before a prisoner is put to work on the outside.

Maxwell has already said the number of prisoners per crew supervisor will be reduced from eight to four.

He is also considering reducing the number of projects his crews perform. Basically, all the police jury, a town or a nonprofit group has to do to get manpower from the prison is simply to ask Maxwell.

&uot;Right now, we’re just doing too much,&uot;&160;he said.

At the time Dupre escaped, two or three crews of several prisoners each – each with its own supervisor – were working in the same place. That means that at least two supervisors were present at the time of the escape.

But Maxwell would not say what discipline the supervisors could face as a result of the escape.

&uot;There could be disciplinary action, but I’m not sure what yet,&uot;&160;he said. &uot;That will depend on the outcome of the investigation.&uot;