Sara Pagones / The New Orleans Advocate
COVINGTON, La. -- The Louisiana Department of Corrections conducted an early-morning surprise inspection at a Covington work release center that has been the subject of a series of investigative reports by WWL-TV and the New Orleans Advocate.
North Shore Workforce Director Lester Mitchell confirmed that about 40 Department of Corrections and Probation and Parole officers went into the facility at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. Mitchell released few details about how the raid was conducted, but said 19 inmates were sent back to secure custody at the St. Tammany Parish Jail as a result of violations discovered in the raid.
Mitchell said most of the violations were the result of positive drug tests. He also confirmed that it is one of the largest number of inmates pulled from the program for violating Department of Corrections regulations, however Mitchell also said inspections like the one conducted Sunday morning are not unusual.
Officers drug tested all 190 inmates currently being housed at the facility. According to Mitchell, 13 failed their drug tests and 3 others could not submit a urine sample. Investigators found two cell phones and synthetic marijuana Sunday. During the first inspection last week, officers did physical searches and used dogs. They only found a homemade tattoo gun.
A spokesman for St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain said their deputies were involved in the raid, but did not comment further on whether it was a high number of revocations or whether any further action is planned.
Last week, in the latest of the series of investigative reports, former inmate James Woodside detailed his experience in the program from 2010 to 2011, saying he didn't stay at the Covington center for nearly five months while he was in the program working for a company closely connected to North Shore Workforce, Baker Pile Driving.
The work release program is largely filled with inmates from the Department of Corrections who are within three years of the end of their sentence. They are supposed to spend nights at the work release center, leaving only to go to work or for rarely-granted supervised absences. Woodside detailed living in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and in Venice along with other North Shore Workforce inmates during his time in the program.
North Shore Workforce is one of two privately-owned and privately-run work release programs in St. Tammany Parish. It is owned by a group of businessmen and a former warden of the St. Tammany Parish Jail, Marlin Peachey. Peachey is also the campaign treasurer for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.
Until 2013, the other work release center was run directly by the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office. Strain granted a no-bid contract to another politically-connected group of businessmen to take over that facility last year. It is now called St. Tammany Workforce Solutions. North Shore Workforce also received a no-bid contract to open the Covington facility when it was created.
The business offices of North Shore Workforce are located in the same office as Baker Pile Driving on Ronald Reagan Hwy in Covington
In 2011, an inmate was found dead of a heroin overdose at a trailer linked to Baker Pile Driving. His mother, Jane LeBlanc, said Dore often slept at the trailer, and she had even brought him clothing and bedding to make him more comfortable while he was there. The St. Tammany sheriff, Baker Pile Driving and North Shore Workforce have all repeatedly denied any inmates ever stayed at the trailer. Woodside admitted he stayed there for a week before Baker sent him to Shreveport for a job.
In 2012, another inmate, Wesley Fitzpatrick, was found dead of an accidental drug overdose inside the actual work release center on Champagne Drive across the street from the St. Tammany Parish jail. His body lay in his bunk for hours before guards discovered him.
Last week's story detailed clear violations of Department of Corrections regulations, including information about another inmate who got married at a motorcycle rally on a Sunday afternoon at a Slidell restaurant. Woodside also had the maximum, 62 percent deduction taken out of his paychecks for both jobs he was working, another violation of their policy.
A spokeswoman for the La. Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment on the inspections.