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|Officials struggle with OCC budget shortfall|
Meetings are ongoing with Ouachita Parish sheriff's office officials and Ouachita Parish police jurors to review a pending budget shortfall at the Ouachita Correctional Center.
Last month The Ouachita Citizen reported that overcrowding at OCC could lead to a $2 million deficit in the jail's 2009 operating budget.
"We put together a budget several months ago of what we wanted, and it was a want list," said Brian Newcomer, warden at OCC. "It started out around $11.9 million. We started whittling away at things and we are down to what we have to have now."
Even with the recent reductions in expenses, OCC will operate at $1.2 million over budget in 2009, he said.
Newcomer made the comments during a police jury finance committee meeting late last week where jurors reviewed several proposed departmental budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Jan. 1.
The jail has an operating budget of $9.2 million annually. The current budget estimates for 2009 indicate costs of operating the jail will exceed that amount by roughly $1.2 million.
Police jury treasurer Brad Cammack said the budget deficit could be managed by using OCC's cash reserve. However, a long-term solution must be found because OCC would not be able to sustain this deficit for more than one year, he said.
The police jury, which pays for the day-to-day operations at the jail, is working with Sheriff Royce Toney and 4th Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones to deal with the overcrowding and financial issues.
Currently, OCC is housing some 960 to 1,000 inmates each month. The jail is designed for no more than 900 inmates. OCC's budget calls for accommodating about 850 inmates.
OCC currently employs one deputy per 80 inmates. Newcomer wants to hire additional deputies to reduce the ratio to one deputy per 60 inmates.
"That's only about two people per shift on the four shifts," Newcomer said. "We're trying to hire four more nurses who can work on the shifts, and they can also work security, so we're actually getting a little more with them."
"Everything we have asked for is in the budget, but they are not hired yet," Newcomer explained. "They are in the budget, and we are still $1.2 million over income."
Newcomer said the additional four nurses are needed because almost all of the 962 inmates currently housed at OCC have some type of medical condition.
"Because of the nature of their job, they'll do security as well as medical, but most of the time we'll try to let the nurses do only the medical stuff," Newcomer said. "Of the 962 inmates, about 950 of them need some type of medication."
"It's that bad," he added.
The OCC prescription medication budget is substantial each year, Newcomer said. The proposed 2009 fiscal year budget has $350,000 allocated for prescription medication for the inmates.
Since OCC is facing a budget shortfall, all employee raises will be eliminated this year, Newcomer said.
Originally for fiscal year 2009, OCC wanted to extend a five percent raise to employees.
"We totally took raises out," Newcomer continued. "We first figured a five percent raise, then a three percent raise. Then we took them totally out of the budget."
"The budget contains no raises whatsoever," he said.
OCC employees received a five percent raise when Sheriff Royce Toney took office. Before that, the last time deputies at OCC got a raise was 18 months earlier.
OCC is experiencing an overcrowding issue because of the number of pre-trial detainees being housed at the parish prison. Roughly 60 percent of the inmates at OCC are awaiting trial.
The Legislature last year created two new judgeships in the 4th Judicial District Court. Parish officials are hopeful the two new judges will help move the pre-trial detainees through the court system more quickly. The two new judges take office Jan. 1.
Overcrowding at the jail also is spurred by the high recidivism rate among parish prisoners.
Of the 962 inmates currently housed at the jail, 806 were previously incarcerated at OCC. Many of them are at OCC for their third or fourth time, Newcomer said.
A large number are there for violent crimes, he added.
"There are about 350 who we cannot turn our back on because they will hurt you," Newcomer said.
Newcomer believes local church groups and people who want to help inmates learn a trade will go a long way in reducing the recidivism rate.
OCC officials, though, do not have any volunteers who could teach inmates a trade. Everyone OCC officials have contacted about teaching inmates a trade wanted to be compensated financially, Newcomer said. OCC doesn't have money available.
"It's a correctional center, and we're trying to correct them," Newcomer said. "I know we will have some who will continue to come through here because that's their lifestyle, but a lot of these are people who made mistakes, or they got into drugs.
"The problem is they sit in jail, and when we let them go, they have no skill and they go right back to what got them here in the first place because they have to eat."
Police juror Pat Moore said several local churches want to form a coalition to help inmates turn around their lives.
Newcomer told Moore he is willing to help church leaders in their efforts to assist inmates.
"We're trying to do everything we can that costs nothing," Newcomer said. "It costs nothing to teach them the cross of Christ, and that's more effective than some of the things we've been doing over the years."
The coalition of local churches wants to focus on helping inmates return to society, transitional housing and finding inmates jobs once they are released from prison, Moore said.