COVINGTON, La. -- The Louisiana Department of Corrections, or DOC, conducted a surprise search Sunday of a Covington work release center that has been the subject of a series of investigative reports by WWL-TV and the New Orleans Advocate.
Monday, a spokeswoman for DOC said they conducted the extensive search of the facility '...as a result of recent allegations of non-compliance with the Department's Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for such programs.'
In a release issued Monday, DOC said 38 correctional officers from Rayburn Correctional Institute went into North Shore Workforce at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, including three K-9 teams. Eighteen probation officers from the state's Covington office assisted in the search.
According to DOC, there were 199 state offenders assigned to North Shore Workforce, with nine of them working offshore. All 190 were physically searched and drug tested, including those who had already left for work. Probation officers went to the work sites to collect urine samples for those inmates.
Sunday, North Shore Workforce Director Lester Mitchell said most of the violations were the result of positive drug tests, something DOC confirmed on Monday. 13 of the inmates tested positive for illegal drugs, with two others found in possession of synthetic marijuana. A third inmate was also found in possession of it at his works site. Three of the inmates refused to or failed to submit a urine sample in the time frame required.
As for contraband, DOC said Monday that two of the inmates were found with cell phones. An additional 16 inmates were caught in possession of what DOC called 'minor' contraband, including pornographic photos, money in excess of what's allowed and credit or debit cards. They were allowed to remain in the work release program. They were sent back to prison as well.
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. Strain's spokesman once again declined to comment Monday after the release of more detailed information about the search from DOC.
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 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 Sunday morning raid.