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Phelps Correctional Center Warden Robert Henderson. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Phelps Correctional Center Warden Robert Henderson. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Process of closing down Phelps already well underway

Last Modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 11:39 PM

By Johnathan Manning / American Press

Save for a couple pictures of dogs, the walls of the warden’s office at Phelps Correctional Center are bare.

Boxes with Robert Henderson’s personal effects and work documents sat on the conference table Friday as he, along with most of the workers and inmates, prepared for the closing of the prison.

“I was a duck hunter and a lot of people gave me ducks, portraits of ducks and other decorations,” said Henderson, who was been at Phelps since 1985.

In a surprise announcement Sept. 14, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections said it plans to close the prison by Nov. 1.

Thirty-eight inmates have already been moved, and Henderson expects the state to begin moving prisoners out in higher numbers this week.

“I’m not waiting until the last day (to pack),” he said.

Similar to Henderson’s office, boxes littered the office of the prison’s chaplain, Bob Colquette.

“The hardest thing right now is scrounging for boxes because everybody wants boxes,” he said.

Colquette, pastor of Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church in DeQuincy, has been chaplain at Phelps for 12 years. He said he will retire from state work come Nov. 1.

“We don’t have a whole lot of choice,” he said of leaving. “It’s disappointing, but I’ve enjoyed working here. It’s been a good place.”

Colquette, with the assistance of a couple inmates, packed up 12 years’ worth of videotapes and books.

“I’ve already taken a lot of stuff home,” Colquette said. “This is kind of the last little bit of what’s left.”

Unlike Phelps’ general inmate population, which lives in dormitories, the 38 inmates moved first were housed in the prison’s cell block.

A long line of inmates and their personal items stretched through Phelps’ central yard Friday as they moved from one dorm to another to prepare for the move to Angola State Penitentiary.

At the same time the prisoners are moved, so too are their pillows, sheets and lockers, Henderson said.

Dolores Bluitt, who works in the prison commissary, said Phelps has cut its supply orders to a third of what they are normally but that the commissary will remain open “till the last offender leaves.”

Bluitt said she will return to the “private sector” to look for a job when Phelps closes. She won’t be leaving DeQuincy, though ­— it’s been her home on and off for 40 years, she said.

Henderson said some employees have already left Phelps, either by transfer to other prisons or to take employment elsewhere.

The prison’s last visitation dates were this weekend, Henderson said.

“Our people liked working out here,” he said. “After you work here awhile, it gets to be part of your life.”

Supplies for a new fence were delivered to the prison recently, but work on the fence wasn’t begun, Henderson said.

Work has mostly stopped in the planting fields that surround Phelps, although there are some vegetables that will have to be harvested, he said.

The same goes for the vo-tech courses offered at Phelps, Henderson said.

About 150 head of cattle are kept at the prison. Henderson said he expects them to be moved either to Angola or Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.

Phelps’ garment factory, which services several prisons, will be disassembled and moved to Hunt, he said.

Henderson said the news that most of the prisoners will go to Angola hasn’t resulted in unrest among the prisoners.

“I’ve been just a little bit surprised at the inmates,” he said. “When it was first announced, some wanted to cheer, but that quickly subsided to them being very quiet, subdued and very cooperative. I’m sure that’s because they are worried about where they are going.”

When the prison closes, Phelps’ pre-class division, which calculates inmates’ prison terms, is expected to remain, as well as four officers who will oversee parish work crews.

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