James Woodside is a skilled construction worker working to raise his three kids after a messy divorce. Three years ago, he ended up serving time in a privately-owned St. Tammany Parish work release program called North Shore Workforce. While he was supposed to be living at the facility in Covington, Woodside says he spent most of his time living unsupervised in other parts of the state.
North Shore Workforce is one of two privately-owned work release programs run by businessmen in St. Tammany. North Shore Workforce in Covington and St. Tammany Workforce Solutions in Slidell received no-bid contracts from St Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain to operate them.
James Woodside’s story raises questions about how another company with close ties to North Shore Workforce is using the inmates.
In 2006, Woodside wrote a bad check to his ex-wife's lawyer.
“I paid that check off by 2007, but in 2009, I needed a job and moved to Georgia and Louisiana didn't like that, so they put me in prison,” he said.
Woodside’s suspended sentence was revoked and he was sent to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. They assigned him to serve his time in the St. Tammany Parish Jail.
“As soon as I saw the work release gentleman in the hallways, I said, ‘Hey! Here's my paperwork. I'm ready to go,'” Woodside recalled.
He was moved to North Shore Workforce in March of 2010. Woodside (pictured right) worked two jobs those first few months, doing construction work for J Star Enterprises and for the Blue Harbor car wash in Mandeville.
Often times Woodside said he worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day and like all inmates are supposed to, he said he returned to the Covington work release center on Champagne Drive every night.
J Star paid him $18 dollars an hour and the car wash paid him $7.50 plus tips.
“I was told if I got a second job, they wouldn't take any of the money from the second job,” Woodside said.
When asked if they took any money, Woodside responded, “Of course they did.”
His inmate ledgers from North Shore Workforce back up his story. Deductions for room and board are taken out of all of his deposits. Pay receipts also corroborate the room and board deductions.
North Shore Workforce took 62 percent of his gross pay from both jobs, even though the La. Department of Corrections regulations governing work release programs read, "…deductions are not authorized from the second job."
Baker Pile Driving
In September of 2010, James Woodside got a new job with Baker Pile Driving, a company headquartered in Covington with a lay yard and a marine dock in Madisonville. Their website shows work done on projects all over the state.
“Everybody knew that the guys that worked for Baker were pretty much free,” Wooside said.
He traded a job making $18 dollars an hour at J Star for a lower-paying job at Baker making $12 bucks an hour.
“The pay was less but you got the benefits, the freedom. It didn't matter what we took home. We all knew that the facility was gonna keep our money,” Woodside said.
Baker Pile Driving regularly employs inmates from North Shore Workforce. An employer list from North Shore Workforce shows in 2012, Baker employed 8 work release inmates. North Shore Workforce officials said an unspecified number still works for the company.
Baker Pile Driving is closely tied to the work release center. In fact, North Shore Workforce operates its business operations out of the Baker Pile Driving office on Ronald Reagan Highway in Covington.
Robert Baker owns Baker Pile Driving. A company connected to him, called Gas Properties LLC owns the property where the Riverbend Market, a gas station near Madisonville, is located.
The Baker Pile Driving marine dock address listed on the company’s website is the same address as the Riverbend Market. Behind it sits a trailer where James Woodside said he spent his first week working for Baker.
It's the same trailer where another inmate, Jonathan Dore, (pictured right) overdosed on heroin less than a year later. Dore’s mother, Jane LeBlanc, said Jonathan would regularly stay overnight there.
St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, North Shore Workforce co-owner Marlin Peachey and Robert Baker all denied in our previous investigations that inmates have ever stayed there.
“If you're not offshore, you're spending the night here. That's the bottom line,” Peachey said in a previous interview with WWL-TV in October of 2013.
Shortly after Dore’s death, in May of 2011, Peachey issued a memo to North Shore Workforce employees that said “Absolutely no offenders are to remain at any job site overnight, unless offshore.”
Whether or not that is now strictly adhered to for Baker Pile Driving workers is unclear, but in 2010, Woodside said he and others stayed at the trailer behind the Riverbend Market overnight.
“I stayed in the trailer for about a week before I got the assignment to go to Shreveport,” Woodside said.
Peachey wouldn't do an interview with us for this story, but said in a written statement that, "…to our knowledge when [Woodside] worked offshore he was housed by his employer within the guidelines of the program."
Woodside said he never worked offshore.
“Marlin Peachey and one of the other ladies that worked for him were the only two who knew,” Woodside said, referring to his living arrangements in Shreveport.
He said he had to call them to get money when he needed supplies, or to send money to his family.
He and a couple of other inmates were living in an apartment at the Canebrake Apartments for months. Woodside was treated at the LSU Shreveport Hospital at one point for a Staph infection. The records of his emergency room visit show where he was living.
“I had to give the hospital some information. I couldn't tell them that I was an inmate. So, I just gave them my address there at the condo. That's where I lived at the time,” Woodside said.
Baker also paid him per diems totaling $175 dollars a week while he was in Caddo Parish, the parish where Shreveport is located.
At the same time, North Shore Workforce and the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office were getting $15.39 a day from the state of Louisiana to feed and house Woodside. And North Shore Workforce was taking 62 percent of his paychecks for room and board.
“I could go pick up the keys from my foreman and go visit friends, family, go shopping, do whatever I needed to do. I went to Wal-Mart and the grocery store a couple of times a week. But that was my personal limit. I knew what we were doing was a major violation,” Woodside said.
He admits he had a few beers now and again, but says others did much more, including going to bars and not coming back to the apartment until the next day.
Woodside said he also worked jobs for Baker in Baton Rouge and Venice.
Plus, Woodside said he spent Thanksgiving at Robert Baker's ranch in Bush in St. Tammany Parish, riding 4-wheelers and having a good time.
It's the same ranch where neighbors complained about the treatment of Baker’s horses last fall.
When asked about it, Baker said in an email, "Inmates often work on my farm. Four wheelers are often used in hauling fence material, herding cattle, and pulling small trailers while picking watermelon."
“I know I wasn't in that facility for five months straight. I didn't set foot in it for five months,” Woodside said.
Other Baker inmates
Woodside and Dore aren't the only two examples of Baker Pile Driving inmates getting free reign. 37-year-old Ronald Manuel is a Department of Corrections inmate serving a 10-year sentence for his fourth DWI. He was sentenced by a St Tammany Parish Judge in April of 2009.
Manuel has been working for Baker in the work release program since July of 2010. James Woodside says Manuel was working for Baker with him in Venice when he was on the job there in December 2010.
Manuel got pulled over headed South-bound on Highway 23 near Fort Jackson around 7:30 p.m. on December 10, 2010. He was ticketed for driving a truck with an unlit plate and for driving with a suspended license. (Click image to see documents)
The address Manuel listed on the ticket is the address of North Shore Workforce in Covington.
Manuel is still working for Baker Pile Driving in the work release program. And in another example of him getting free reign, marriage records show he got married in April of last year in Slidell, nowhere near the Covington work release center.
His new wife posted pictures of it on Facebook.
Pearl River notary and minister Doretta “Chris” Munroe said she performed Manuel's marriage at the Southside Café in Slidell April 7, 2013. It was a Sunday afternoon during a motorcycle rally at the restaurant.
Manuel’s absence from the facility is a clear violation of both Department of Corrections and North Shore Workforce policy. Inmates are only allowed escorted absences from the facility, typically to attend funerals.
Work release officials said Manuel was removed from work release for an unspecified disciplinary action shortly after his wedding, and after three months in jail, he was back at North Shore workforce as a trustee, and then back in the full work release program by October 2013.
Woodside’s take away
James Woodside estimates that he probably worked 110 to 120 hours a week at his maximum while in the work release program. He said he thinks he made close to $40,000.
After deductions for room and board, his weekly allowances of $30, payments to buy things in the commissary and child support sent to his now ex-wife, Woodside walked away with just under $3,000.
It's a defeating thought for any inmate trying to make something of himself so he has a foundation when he gets out of jail. Despite that difficult start, Woodside has been successfully raising his family working in construction since his release.
Both Robert Baker and St Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain wouldn't do interviews with us about this story.
In a statement, Sheriff Jack Strain said, “As part of our oversight, several years ago we recognized some deficiencies in the management and daily operations of Northshore Workforce. At that time, we required the owners of Northshore Workforce to hire a Department of Corrections professional to be the director of NSWF to ensure their compliance with state guidelines. Lester Mitchell, a former Captain with the Department of Corrections (with nearly 30 years of experience), has served well in that role and as a result of his efforts, the problem we recognized three years ago are practically non-existent today. Program participants who violate the facility’s rules are removed from the program and returned to jail (234 since August 1, 2012). If James Woodside violated his contract when he was incarcerated three years ago and it was discovered at that time, he would have been immediately returned to jail.”