PORT ALLEN, LA (WAFB) - The West Baton Rouge Work Release Facility is the largest work release program in the state, with 291 inmates. The inmates are getting prepared to be released into the public. Many of them work off-site at local businesses.
As the largest in the state, West Baton Rouge Parish also leads the state in the number of inmate escapes and walk-offs, according to an audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor last year.
The 9News Investigators pulled all the walk-offs, inmates who leave from a job site and actual escapes, from the work release center going back to 2013.
Year Escapes Walk-Offs
2013 0 4
2014 1 5
2015 3 8
2016 1 8
2017 (so far) 2 4
TOTAL 7 29
"In a percentage basis, I don't know if we have more escapes than others," said Col. Richie Johnson with the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office. "I mean, we are the largest work release center in the state."
While many of those escapes are inmates walking off a job site, there are some who simply escape the West Baton Rouge facility.
For example, an escape from September of 2016 was caught on surveillance camera. Cody Lormand, a trusty who was ordered to go throw out the trash, was seen on camera walking past the metal detectors, out the front door to toss out the trash, but instead of going back to the facility, he's caught on camera looking in all directions, waiting, even looking up towards the surveillance camera, and eventually walking off.
In Lormand's case, Col. Johnson says it was deputy error that the inmate was not accounted for. Documents obtained by the 9News Investigators show Deputy Jennifer Jarrett "failed to secure a proper inmate census." Col. Johnson says Deputy Jarrett was responsible for the master headcount, meaning making sure every person is accounted for.
"She's got the responsibility to ensure the count is accurate and if it's not accurate, to call back to the dorm deputies and say, 'Recount,'" said Johnson.
She did not do her job properly that night?
"She did not account for inmates, that's correct," Johnson replied.
She did not alert anyone that an inmate was missing?
"Not for nine hours, correct," Johnson answered.
It's why documents show she received a "3-day suspension without pay."
But five months later, another inmate went unaccounted for under Deputy Jarrett's watch. It was Valentine's Day night when four inmates had to work late at a restaurant and returned to the facility around 1:30 a.m.
"As they entered, the inmates said there were four of them from the place of business and Ms. Jarrett wrote down four, when in fact it was only three," said Col. Johnson.
Surveillance video clearly shows three people walking in, not four. Even though cell phones are not allowed in the facility, Deputy Jarrett is seen on surveillance video on her phone from 1 to 1:30 a.m. Col. Johnson says surveillance video shows she never looked up at the inmates walking in. Instead, after they walked off, she got back on her phone, never notifying anyone that Mertis Wade did not return to the facility.
"She should have physically counted these people. Again, I want to see skin. Four people - one, two, three - well, we don't have number four and it didn't happen," Col. Johnson explained.
Instead, it was not until the next morning that they realized Wade was missing. He was later found at a Mardi Gras parade in Metairie the following weekend.
"I don't think she can mess up again without being terminated," Col. Johnson added.
This time, documents show she received a "5 work day suspension without pay" and that "this will be the last warning prior to termination."
With every inmate escape or walk-off, Col. Johnson says the department goes back and reviews its policies and many times, new ones are implemented. In this case, what was a verbal understanding of "no electronics" was put into an official policy.
"If you don't have enough sense to take your face out of a cell phone and do a proper count, then we have to take the cell phone away from you where you can pay attention to what's going on," said Col. Johnson.
Less than two weeks later, another inmate escaped, but not under the same deputy's watch. Inmate Rickey Lake, a trusty, was seen on surveillance video talking to other inmates. He then walked back towards his bunk and the surveillance video shows him raising a window and leaving. From another camera, Lake is seen crawling out of that window and walking off.
In this case, though, deputies did what they were supposed to do - actually place eyes on an inmate. When the deputy did not, he raised the sheets and found laundry bags in place of the inmate. Within minutes, a search began and the next morning, Lake was found in the woods near Erwinville. He was taken back to the jail and booked with escape.
Some other policies recently created include an alarm system at night on all access doors, a fence around the entire facility, and laser movement technology that notifies deputies immediately of any movement on the fences.
Col. Johnson says any business that hires trusties is responsible for them when those trusties are at their job site. Any other time, those inmates are the responsibility of the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office.
"He's supposed to be incarcerated and we're supposed to keep him incarcerated and we're going to make sure he stays incarcerated because that's our job," said Col. Johnson.
He believes the sentence for people walking off of work sites needs to change to deter inmates. Under current law, a walk-off can get an inmate a minimum of six months, but that's often served alongside their current sentence (concurrently), not in addition to it (consecutively). That means, in some cases, there really is not any added punishment for escaping.