The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal proved once again last week how heartless it can be. The late-Friday afternoon announcement that the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy would be closed by November was a kick in the gut to the 269 employees who work there, their families and the citizens of DeQuincy and Southwest Louisiana.
Typical of the Jindal administration, it let someone else take the heat for its decision that caught virtually everyone in this corner of the state by surprise. And Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc made it sound like it is no big deal.
“We’ll gradually move over the next couple of months and hopefully by November we’ll have it empty,” LeBlanc said. “We’re prepared to move as quickly as we need to move.”
What’s the rush? Can’t they give those stunned employees at least the rest of this fiscal year to make plans for their futures? Shutting Phelps down before June 30 next year is only going to save the state $2.6 million. That’s peanuts for an administration that spends untold millions to bring new industries to Louisiana.
Phelps is an industry in DeQuincy, one of only two major ones in that area. Isn’t it just as important to save an industry as it is to bring new ones in? In fact, the state hasn’t done much for DeQuincy in a long time.
Kenny Naquin, a 26-year employee, said, “Anybody that wants to go to work, they go to work out at Phelps. There’s Temple-Inland and there’s Phelps.”
Robert Henderson, the warden at Phelps, said nearly 100 workers will be transferred to other state correctional centers. However, how many of those will be able to pull up stakes and move elsewhere when they have homes and other obligations in the DeQuincy area? Even LeBlanc admitted he doesn’t know if Phelps employees will want to transfer to other facilities.
Pity the poor inmates housed in the 942-bed facility. Most of them will have to serve the rest of their time at the state penitentiary at Angola. The state said it will keep them away from offenders serving life sentences, but Angola is probably the last place they should be housed. And they are going to lose out on training programs designed to help them make it on the outside.
The closure of Phelps proves once again that state legislators don’t really count for much in the eyes of the Jindal administration. Most lawmakers in this area were caught unaware of the sudden shutdown of the center. And there really isn’t much they can do about it anyway. They only get to approve the privatization of prisons, not their closings.
Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, should have some voice in decisions like this one that affects his area, but he’s as helpless as all the rest. About all he could do was offer his condolences to the families affected by the closure.
Some of those are like the families of Carol Lee Fruge, Carrie Wilson and Kenny Naquin. Fruge is a 17-year employee and is Henderson’s secretary. Wilson is an 11-year employee, and Naquin is a 26-year employee. Both Fruge and Wilson’s husbands are employed at Phelps. Naquin’s wife, son and soon-to-be son-in-law also work at the prison.
Those are great examples of why there is no other way to describe this closure other than devastating.
DeQuincy Mayor Lawrence Henagan was right on target when he said, “They’re not a bunch of dogs, they’re human beings.”
To say the future for Phelps employees is grim is putting it mildly. Most will probably be out of work for the foreseeable future.
Fruge spoke for public officials, Phelps and the entire Southwest Louisiana community when she said, “That’s been the hardest part of this; we were completely blind-sided.”
The administration always manages to find convenient excuses for its cruel actions. Pam Laborde with the Department of Corrections said Phelps was old and inefficient and this is a good deal for Louisiana taxpayers. Maybe so, but taxpayers might view this differently. The odds are they, unlike the Jindal administration, can understand how unsettling this decision can be and how it’s going to affect the economic well-being of 269 employees and their families.
Unfortunately, the situation at Phelps isn’t unique where this administration is concerned. Talk to the citizens of Southeast Louisiana where they are trying to save a mental hospital and they will tell you they understand the pain being felt in the DeQuincy area. A psychiatrist at Southeast Louisiana Hospital calls its closure “shocking.”
Legislators in that area are just as ineffective as those in Southwest Louisiana when it comes to stopping hurtful decisions by the Jindal administration.
Efficiency in state government is desirable and should be a continuing goal of those who make decisions like the two discussed here. However, shouldn’t there also be some compassion and concern in this latest closure for the well-being of prison workers and the future of DeQuincy area citizens?
The Jindal administration can’t make the argument that there aren’t better places to save those millions of dollars than in areas that have state facilities that are a major lifeblood of a community. This Phelps decision is about as uncaring and unnecessary as they get.