Officials break ground for new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women facility

Staff Report

Hailing the end of another chapter from the August 2016 flood, Gov. John Bel Edwards joined state and local officials to break ground on a new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women on Sept. 1 in St. Gabriel.

Gov. John Bel Edwards talks about the challenges the state faced during the planning for the new LCIW facility.

Construction for the 280,000-square-foot facility will cost $150 million. Officials expect completion of the project by mid-2025.

The 138-bed facility will include an administration building, medical and mental health building. It will also have vo-tech training and a postpartum facility.

It will be built to withstand a 500-year flood.

LCIW has been vacant since the transfer of its inmates to other facilities after the August 2016 flood, which damaged the building.

The evacuation forced LCIW to transfer inmates to various institutions, including the once-shuttered Jetson Correctional Center for Youth in Baker, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, Louisiana Stater Penitentiary and other local facilities.

“The wheels can move very slowly on recovery – a federal bureaucracy is its own creature – and it has its own timeline,” Edwards said. “FEMA can do stuff really fast in the preparation, but once you move toward recovering, it can be very difficult.”

Supply chain issues and inflation that arose during and after the pandemic delayed the start of construction, but a first-rate facility remained the goal, Edwards said.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi, Gov. John Bel Edwards and District Attorney Tony Clayton talk at the groundbreaking for the new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.

“I am not going to build a second-rate facility,” he said. “We’re going to have a facility that is state of the art that makes sure we have every opportunity for vocational training and education.

“And we’re going to build it in a way that we don’t exacerbate flooding problems in this area,” Edwards said. “I was here in 2016, and I’ve been at the intersection of East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Iberville parishes many times when we’ve had flooding, so I definitely know how detrimental a factor it has been here.”

The state’s total prison population is 26,600. It peaked at 40,854 in 2012.

For several months, Louisiana had given up the title of having the highest prison population in the nation, Edwards said.

“But other states aren’t sitting still and they’re making progress, as well,” he said. “But when you look where we are already, we’re making significant progress.”

An artist’s rending shows the plans for the 280,000-square-foot LCIW facility. Completion is set for mid-2025.

The new facility will reflect cultural changes the state has made in criminal justice.

It will teach the inmates trades to get them back into the workforce as productive citizens, Edwards said.

The facility will provide training for fields ranging from cosmetology to welding and heavy equipment operation, he said.

Inmates on probation and parole now total 45,000, after peaking at 73,000 in 2015, which provides for a smaller caseload for probation and parole officers, Edwards said.

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, a St. Gabriel native, said he remembers the original facility that was completed in the early1960s.

“My earliest connection here was at Sunshine High School, now East Iberville School, when it was a school for grades 1-12,” he said. “I remember seeing the women out there working in the field, and it means a lot to me see where we are today in offering a much better facility.”

Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, a St. Gabriel native, speaks about construction of the new facility.

He also recalled its demise in 2016.

The inmates and officials at the facility had to race against time to evacuate.

“There was very little warning of the flood, and that was a testament to our ability to react quickly in an emergency situation when many as 1,000 females left with as many belongings as they carried in a few hours,” LeBlanc said. “Thanks to local partners and our local staff, we made the move for safer housing when water was over sandbags and pumps.”

The LWC facility held 985 prisoners at the time of the flood. It experienced flooding ranging from 8 inches in some areas to as much as 3 feet in others.

All areas of the building took in flood water, except for the chapel.

In the weeks after the flood, the rainwater inundated the prison and destroyed the facility.

It marked the first time in Louisiana history that an entire population of a prison site was evacuated.

The building plan for the new facility did not include a chapel.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is joined by state officials during the groundbreaking for the new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women on Sept. 1 in St. Gabriel.

“But there’s no way I’ll let this facility open without a chapel,” Edwards said. “I’ll make sure it has one when it opens.”

He said it was rare for him to be available the last week in August, considering the conditions in late August during the past few years. “Normally, this time of year I’d be at GOHSEP during a hurricane,” Edwards said. “I’m very thankful it’s not the case this year.”