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EAST FELICIANA PARISH, LA (WAFB) -
Some of the violations two former jail workers say are going on in East Feliciana Parish include inmates with cell phones and inmates drinking on work release. WAFB's Kiran Chawla investigates the loose lockup.
The jail in East Feliciana Parish is home to nearly 200 inmates; that includes parish and state prisoners, some of whom are in the work release program.
The program is meant to help non-violent and non-sexual offenders transition back into society when their sentence is over. They are working in restaurants and other places, just like you, and they're under minimum security; that is, until they go back to their jail cells for the night.
Jails operate under inmate policies issued by the State Department of Corrections; no drugs, alcohol, cell phones, weapons or any other contraband.
"We follow the basic guidelines that DOC sets forth," said Sheriff Mike Cazes, with West Baton Rouge.
"No smoking there, no cell phones and no contraband," said Sheriff Bud Torres with Pointe Coupee Parish.
From West Baton Rouge with Sheriff Cazes to Pointe Coupee with Sheriff Torres, both say those Department of Correction guidelines in their parishes are strictly enforced; with violators being removed from the program.
"They're being charged again with contraband, which is another felony. They lose all good time and they're sent back in the prison system to serve day for day," said Sheriff Cazes.
Because jails get state funding, each sheriff is ultimately responsible for enforcing the rules.
In East Feliciana Parish, it's Sheriff Talmadge Bunch.
Two former employees of the jail, whose identities we are protecting, say things behind barbed wire in East Feliciana are not right; including inmates allegedly being given access to cell phones.
"It's a jail, there are certain rules, you know, like with the work release. Their inmates are not supposed to have cell phones, any kind of contraband," said one employee.
When we asked if they're allowing cell phones in this jail, another employee responded "um, huh."
He also said, "if they're really good friends with the warden or some of them, you're just fighting a losing battle because it's not going to do any good."
In one incident, the former workers say four work release inmates were drinking alcohol during a work day offsite last summer. During a random test, one of them tested positive for having alcohol in his system. So the others were also tested.
The WAFB I-Team obtained documents showing the results. Remember, a reading of 0.08 is considered legally intoxicated in the state of Louisiana. While one of the inmates blew just below that, 0.068, three others blew over the limit, 0.101, 0.116, and 0.141.
In East Feliciana, Sheriff Bunchs' guidelines say if an inmate violates the alcohol policy, he is put out of the work release program, returned to the general population, and charge with another offense.
"Locked them up in the back and we told the Captain and Warden what was going on, and the very next day they came in and took them all out the back and put them back on the dorms and sent them back out to work. That's what they're doing with the work release, if they get caught with something, they're just shaking it off," said one employee.
The Department of Corrections disputes that, saying their records show all four inmates were immediately taken off work release after that incident, and all were moved to another state prison within a matter of weeks.
WAFB's I-Team reporter Kiran Chawla tried talking to the East Feliciana Sheriff Talmadge Bunch, but was told his schedule was busy all week long with the Sheriff's Association meeting in Baton Rouge. When she asked if she could grab him during a break, or before or after the meetings, she was told the sheriff would not want to do that. Then the warden called her saying he and chief deputy would talk to her instead. After she drove out to East Feliciana Parish, the Warden told her no one wanted to go on camera.
The former employees, both who admit to leaving their jobs on a bad note, made other allegations of wrongdoing, pointing the finger at Sheriff Bunch, Chief Deputy Cliff Hurst and Warden Ray Newman.
Among the allegations: inmates working at the warden's home and taking the sheriff's personal car to get serviced.
When asked if the former employees feel like specific inmates are getting special treatment, one employee said yes. When asked why, he said "because they do things for the sheriff. They do fix things for him, fix things for Mr. Cliff. They're bringing them their personal vehicles to get fixed. The warden was getting ready to move into a new house, got the four inmates from the shop and two more, and took them to his house to help him move furniture. I don't know any other jail that would do that."
Warden Newman's response to that allegation was, "No, absolutely not."
An audit done by the Department of Corrections last August highlighted other concerns at the East Feliciana Jail, such as: an on-site auto service shop where six trustees were assigned was not supervised. The audit team found car keys identified by vehicle left on hooks, making escape attempts easier.
Two months after the audit, the East Feliciana Jail started making changes. While the state auditors commended those actions, they said there were still some deficiencies that the jail needed to fix.
We asked the former employees to explain the atmosphere before and after the audit was conducted and completed.
One employee said, "It's crazy around there when they know they're coming. Everybody's scrambling trying to get stuff done and trying to make sure everything is in order and just make sure everything is cleaned up. The inmates, they take the stuff the inmates are not supposed to have on a regular day basis, take it and hide it 'til the people leave and then they give it back to them when they leave."
Since the incident with the four inmates drinking, three served their time and have been released. One remains off the work release program in a state prison. Meanwhile, when the warden was asked if inmates at the jail have cell phones, he said they're not supposed to but, "I'm sure there are a couple smuggled in back there."