COVINGTON, La. - Nearly 150 inmates in a Northshore work-release program have been transferred back to the St. Tammany Parish jail.
Sheriff Jack Strain decided to shut down the controversial program after an early-morning escape that led to an alleged kidnapping and car crash.
“Sadly enough, the actions of a few idiots have hurt over 100 men who were turning their lives around,” said Strain.
After three recent walk-offs from job sites, or from the facility itself Thursday morning, Strain said he can't guarantee security breaches won't happen again.
But instead of blaming security measures at the privately owned North Shore Workforce, he instead blames “reckless journalism.”
“There's been a great deal of reporting of incidents that happened years ago, and maybe that reckless journalism is some of the reason that some of the inmates felt it was an opportunity to take advantage of it,” said Strain.
A series of Eyewitness News investigations outlined questionable security and oversight at the work-release program, with two inmates dying of overdoses in 2011 and 2012, and two escapes late last year.
The Department of Corrections sent 19 work release inmates back to jail last month, mostly for positive drug tests, after an Eyewitness News investigation prompted a surprise inspection.
“I believe that my agency is on record saying this work-release program exceeded any in this state as far as measures taken place,” said Strain.
Mandeville's Edible Arrangements is one of many businesses hurt by the work-release program's sudden closure.
“Very dependable, wonderful work ethic,” said employee Danielle Banks.
Managers and employees at Edible Arrangements agree the three work-release inmates at the company were prize employees, who learned valuable job skills on site.
Those employees were picked up abruptly by bus Thursday afternoon, with no notice or explanation, said Banks.
“The bus driver came in, he was really high intensity, said ‘Ya'll come on, we need to go. 30 seconds to get out of here. Grab the stuff you want to keep, if you don't want to keep it, leave it,” said Banks. “If it'll get you in trouble, leave it.”
Now, the business like others dependent on the program hope it will open with stricter security measures.
Strain said the program probably will not reopen, but “I've been around long enough to know that you never say never. We’ll work with the Department of Corrections.”
Strain said the jail has 1,200 beds.
“We have capacity, we’ll be able to absorb those individuals and those we can't we'll work with other jails around the state,” said Strain.