WBRZ investigates prisoners walking free, work release businesses frustrated
BATON ROUGE- In a series of exclusive reports, people with close knowledge of the state's work release program have questioned the state's management of the system that allows prisoners access to life outside the prison walls.
WBRZ began investigating complaints of work release inmate escapes months ago and published an eye-opening story Tuesday and a second one Wednesday in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of a woman who was killed by her boyfriend after he managed to leave his work release job unnoticed. In fact, the man's escape was not figured out until after the woman was found dead in Zachary last weekend.
In stories prepared for WBRZ News 2 at 6:00 and 10:00 Tuesday, an inmate explained to the WBRZ Investigative Unit how easy it was to leave.
> WATCH: Part 1 where an inmate discusses how he escaped HERE
> WATCH: Part 2 where a business owner discusses frustration HERE
"It's so wide open," the inmate – identified by a fake name in the report as “Skip” – said. "People have phones in prison. They can get any drug they want. Guards are bringing it in."
“Skip” said the state's Department of Corrections needs to get a better handle on the work release operation.
“They need more oversight,” “Skip” said in an interview conducted after he had walked away from his work release job recently.
Due to the nature of the conversation with “Skip,” WBRZ agreed to conceal his true identity. Television versions of this story also disguised his voice.
“Skip” said the entire Department of Corrections management structure needs to be upended to focus on better security measures – measures that should have kept him from leaving his work release job to be interviewed for the news.
After the original stories, a business owner broke his silence. The business owner said he has become frustrated with bureaucracy.
The business owner, who was also not identified in any version of this report, said work release inmates are not picked up at scheduled times and the state never conducts site visits. He said on one occasion, his business closed at the end of the day and when no one from the state arrived to collect inmates, they were left, sitting for two hours waiting to be brought back to the jail.
But, the business owners do not believe it's the proprietor's responsibility to manage hired inmates.
“It would be too much – we would have to opt out of the program – if we were required to babysit these guys," the business owners said.
And, it's not just business owners who are frustrated. Escapes have become challenging for law enforcement.
There have been three violent attacks on people by work release inmates who walked away since December 2015.
That year, Emanuel Jones left work release and is accused of carjacking someone from a hotel off South Acadian near I-10. The person was stuffed into the trunk of the car and had to free themselves to get away.
In June this year, Darrell Lawrence attacked his ex-girlfriend with kitchen knives, authorities said, after he walked away from his work release gig.
Monday, authorities were still looking for the body of Alvin Dixon, Jr. Dixon was presumed dead after he jumped from the I-10 Mississippi River Bridge. He stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death, authorities said, after leaving his work release job. The woman's body was found off Highway 19 in Zachary. Dixon's disappearance from work release wasn't realized until hours after the woman's body was found.
“Skip” argues, not all work release inmates who leave commit crimes. In most cases, escapees return before they're found to be missing. But, they usually bring trouble back to the prison at night.
“Skip” talked about contraband being available and taken back. He said there are few shakedowns and most inmates are able to obtain and get cell phones back into jail.
“Skip” argued the state turns a blind eye to the situations – from walk-offs to drugs – because the work release system is a money grab.
"About 90 percent of people in prison get high," he said. "It's like [the state] don't care. They want the money. They take 64 percent [of what a prisoner earns from a work release job]. Some places take 72 percent of what you earn."
These problems were highlighted in an audit released by the State Legislative Auditor's Office in 2016. The audit showed around the state, there were 254 escapes between fiscal years 2013 and 2015. The West Baton Rouge Parish Detention Center had the most escapes; with 22.
"What we recommended is they develop procedures that would include site visits, spontaneous site visits, electronic monitoring, which has decreased the number of escapes statewide in Florida by 63 percent," Audit Manager Gina Brown said.
In response to previous questions by WBRZ about why work release inmates don't wear monitors, the state puts the blame on individual prisons housing the inmates. But, the auditor believes the responsibility is on the state.
"Department of Corrections has ultimate responsibility for these offenders," Brown said. "In these work release programs, they do sign a contract with DOC saying they need to supervise the offender at all times, but DOC needs to monitor these facilities to ensure they are doing that."
It's unclear what, if anything, DOC has done to increase oversight on inmates in their work release programs.
Over the course of two days, WBRZ requested an interview with Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc about this topic. Wednesday, the state said LeBlanc was unavailable due to storm operations. A request a day earlier was met with the following prepared statement from the Department of Corrections:
“The State's Transitional Work Program(TWP) has successfully reduced recidivism rates among those who participate. More than 3,000 offenders enrolled in the program are preparing to transition back to society. Each day, they go to work and at the end of their shift, return to prison. This work opportunity provides valuable employment experience, teaches offenders work ethic, money management skills, effective communication skills, and the soft skills necessary to be a successful employee. These are offenders who must meet eligibility requirements and go through extensive suitability screening. Statistics show recidivism rates among TWP participants are 12 percent lower than those released from the local level. These numbers translate to a reduction in crime, less victims, saving taxpayers money, and ultimately increasing public safety. In 2016, 69 of the 5,353 offenders who participated in the program walked off. Most walk offs are going to the store, and return the same day. These offenders are disciplined, and lose their eligibility to participate in the program.”
About the deadly work release escape most recently, the state said:
“Alvin Dixon went through the legally required eligibility screening process, did not have a violent criminal history, and met all of the suitability requirements to participate in TWP. Saturday, he was given the opportunity to make good choices and better himself. Unfortunately, he was the exception in the program and decided to walk off of the job and allegedly commit murder. From all indications, this is a domestic incident, being that the victim and Mr. Dixon had known each other for more than 18 years, and had been in a relationship."