Prison Reform Coalition pushing for changes inside EBR jail
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A coalition of local organizations and community activists met Thursday evening to discuss strategies to reduce Baton Rouge's prison population. The relatively new group is trying to solve an old problem: an outdated prison in a community not properly equipped to deal with the mentally ill.
"I think it's an economic development issue. I think it's a compassion issue," said Rev. Alexis Anderson, executive director of a nonprofit called P.R.E.A.C.H.
Other groups in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition include the Progressive Social Network of Baton Rouge, VOTE, and The Promise of Justice Initiative.
Anderson said Baton Rouge's justice system keeps too many people locked up before they even go to trial.
"We have to remember that everyone stays a human," she said. "That when people are charged with something, that is not the same thing as being convicted. And yet the minute their name and face shows up on the news, they can never get their name back."
Part of the problem is that law enforcement have no other place to bring the mentally ill, especially after the closure of state-funded hospitals like Earl K. Long.
The EBR Metro Council and EBR voters separately shot down proposals to pay for a mental health and drug treatment facility called the Bridge Center. It was designed to relieve pressure on the prison.
Those roadblocks are highlighted in a scathing national article from Reuters published Thursday. The report details some of the 25 inmate deaths in parish prison between 2012 – 2016, although some of the facts and statistics are disputed by the EBR Sheriff's Office.
District Attorney Hillar Moore said it's time for the city to look at the bigger picture and reconsider funding for the Bridge Center.
"People are going to eventually have to pay for it," Moore said. "And when we do, you're going to find we have a lot of cost savings. Not only in lives of people, but just money. We'll have a better system."
Moore said his office has a pre-trial release program in the works. A spokesperson with the EBR Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, said they've expanded prison outreach programs from just one now up to 22. The city-parish contracts with a private company to provide medical services in the jail, including mental health treatment.
Many believe without more money, significant change and new facilities will remain out of reach. Coalition members hope building community support will give leaders the ammunition they need to move forward.
"They're going to make it so much easier for our politicians, particularly the Metro Council, to stand up and run with something positive," Anderson said.
Moore agreed it's a problem that's holding back the city.
"Baton Rouge is different than many other big cities across the country. We are way behind in that regard, and it's time that we catch up, because we're going to have a better system for it, and Baton Rouge deserves a much better system than what we have now," he said.
The EBR Parish Prison Reform Coalition plans several more meetings at the McKinley Alumni Center in the coming months.
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