Beam: Phelps closure cold-hearted

By By Jim Beam / American Press

The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal

proved once again last week how heartless it can be. The late-Friday

afternoon announcement

that the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy would be

closed by November was a kick in the gut to the 269 employees

who work there, their families and the citizens of DeQuincy and

Southwest Louisiana.

Typical of the Jindal administration, it let someone else take the heat for its decision that caught virtually everyone in

this corner of the state by surprise. And Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc made it sound like it is no big deal.

“We’ll gradually move over the next couple of months and hopefully by November we’ll have it empty,” LeBlanc said. “We’re

prepared to move as quickly as we need to move.”

What’s the rush? Can’t they give those

stunned employees at least the rest of this fiscal year to make plans

for their futures?

Shutting Phelps down before June 30 next year is only going to

save the state $2.6 million. That’s peanuts for an administration

that spends untold millions to bring new industries to Louisiana.

Phelps is an industry in DeQuincy, one of only two major ones in that area. Isn’t it just as important to save an industry

as it is to bring new ones in? In fact, the state hasn’t done much for DeQuincy in a long time.

Kenny Naquin, a 26-year employee, said, “Anybody that wants to go to work, they go to work out at Phelps. There’s Temple-Inland

and there’s Phelps.”

Robert Henderson, the warden at Phelps,

said nearly 100 workers will be transferred to other state correctional

centers. However,

how many of those will be able to pull up stakes and move

elsewhere when they have homes and other obligations in the DeQuincy

area? Even LeBlanc admitted he doesn’t know if Phelps employees

will want to transfer to other facilities.

Pity the poor inmates housed in the

942-bed facility. Most of them will have to serve the rest of their time

at the state

penitentiary at Angola. The state said it will keep them away from

offenders serving life sentences, but Angola is probably

the last place they should be housed. And they are going to lose

out on training programs designed to help them make it on

the outside.

The closure of Phelps proves once again

that state legislators don’t really count for much in the eyes of the

Jindal administration.

Most lawmakers in this area were caught unaware of the sudden

shutdown of the center. And there really isn’t much they can

do about it anyway. They only get to approve the privatization of

prisons, not their closings.

Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley,

R-Lake Charles, should have some voice in decisions like this one that

affects his area,

but he’s as helpless as all the rest. About all he could do was

offer his condolences to the families affected by the closure.

Some of those are like the families of

Carol Lee Fruge, Carrie Wilson and Kenny Naquin. Fruge is a 17-year

employee and is

Henderson’s secretary. Wilson is an 11-year employee, and Naquin

is a 26-year employee. Both Fruge and Wilson’s husbands are

employed at Phelps. Naquin’s wife, son and soon-to-be son-in-law

also work at the prison.

Those are great examples of why there is no other way to describe this closure other than devastating.

DeQuincy Mayor Lawrence Henagan was right on target when he said, “They’re not a bunch of dogs, they’re human beings.”

To say the future for Phelps employees is grim is putting it mildly. Most will probably be out of work for the foreseeable

future.

Fruge spoke for public officials, Phelps and the entire Southwest Louisiana community when she said, “That’s been the hardest

part of this; we were completely blind-sided.”

The administration always manages to

find convenient excuses for its cruel actions. Pam Laborde with the

Department of Corrections

said Phelps was old and inefficient and this is a good deal for

Louisiana taxpayers. Maybe so, but taxpayers might view this

differently. The odds are they, unlike the Jindal administration,

can understand how unsettling this decision can be and how

it’s going to affect the economic well-being of 269 employees and

their families.

Unfortunately, the situation at Phelps

isn’t unique where this administration is concerned. Talk to the

citizens of Southeast

Louisiana where they are trying to save a mental hospital and they

will tell you they understand the pain being felt in the

DeQuincy area. A psychiatrist at Southeast Louisiana Hospital

calls its closure “shocking.”

Legislators in that area are just as ineffective as those in Southwest Louisiana when it comes to stopping hurtful decisions

by the Jindal administration.

Efficiency in state government is

desirable and should be a continuing goal of those who make decisions

like the two discussed

here. However, shouldn’t there also be some compassion and concern

in this latest closure for the well-being of prison workers

and the future of DeQuincy area citizens?

The Jindal administration can’t make the argument that there aren’t better places to save those millions of dollars than in

areas that have state facilities that are a major lifeblood of a community. This Phelps decision is about as uncaring and

unnecessary as they get.

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Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com