Phelps prison closes doors

By By Johnathan Manning / American Press

DEQUINCY — C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center’s 54 years as a state prison will come to a quiet end when the facility officially

closes its doors at 6 p.m. today.

The inmates have been gone for six days, as have the wardens. Weeds have already begun to overtake much of the landscaping,

and the vegetable fields that surround the medium-security facility have been picked clean and the yield shipped to Angola

State Penitentiary.

Most of the 269 employees have left too, save for a few, like Gina Pitre, who stayed on to help shut the place down and help

representatives from Angola load equipment.

“I have rode it out to the end,” said Pitre, a six-year veteran of Phelps.

The state Department of Public Safety

and Corrections on Sept. 14 announced plans to close the prison by Nov. 1

as a cost-cutting

measure. Jimmy LeBlanc, head of the department, said the move will

save $2.6 million this fiscal year and $11.85 million over

the next two fiscal years.

The last of the nearly 900 prisoners who were housed at Phelps were shipped to Angola on Friday, leaving the once-bustling

prison yard eerily empty.

“You’re watching your livelihood drive

away basically,” said Marcus Myers, Phelps’ chief of security. He said

he began working

at Phelps at age 19 and has remained there 22 years, currently

residing on the prison grounds. “It’s terrible, very sad and

depressing.”

Representatives from Angola, where most of the prisoners were shipped, have been traveling to Phelps every day to haul any

usable equipment to the other side of the state, workers at Phelps said.

“They are gutting this place,” Pitre said. “Anything they can pick up and move, they’re taking.”

Angola has picked up vehicles, tractors and kitchen equipment, Myers said.

“It looks like they’re going to take everything they can,” said Carol Lee Fruge, the warden’s secretary. “Even down to the

flowers, from what I’ve heard.”

Fruge and Marcus will remain at Phelps as administrators. Four officers will remain to supervise work crews from other prisons,

and eight employees will stay in the prison’s pre-classification division, which tabulates sentences for several prisons’

inmates.

Employees said they are waiting to see whether a meeting of pre-classification staff from around the state called for today

will change any of those arrangements.

Those who will remain at the site will work out of the business office, while the rest of the buildings are being powered

down, Myers said.

Now comes the future for Pitre and the rest of the Phelps correctional staff who didn’t transfer to facilities around the

state or retire.

Of the 269 people employed at Phelps when the state announced the decision to close the facility, 86 transferred to other

state facilities and 53 have retired, said Pam Laborde, Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Most of the prisoners housed at Phelps were transferred to Angola, and most of the employees who transferred went there also.

Those who are leaving the Department of Corrections are getting paid for leave time accrued, and the few who live on prison

grounds have been told they will be allowed to live there through Jan. 1, workers said.

Like many of their co-workers, Pitre and Steven Thomas decided not to uproot to transfer to Angola.

Thomas, who has worked in corrections for seven years, said he started his career at Angola. Originally from the west side

of the state, he would drive to Angola and go home on his off days, he said.

But after a vehicle accident on the Angola compound, he said he sought a transfer to Phelps.

“I like my job,” Thomas said. “I hate seeing it close, but it kind of opens up opportunities for me.”

He said the unemployment office is helping him find funds to go back to school to become a welder. He said that because of

the pay, he had considered leaving corrections before, but “when you find a job you like, you tend to stick with it.”

But it was the pay that kept him from seeking a transfer back to Angola, he said.

Pitre said it just wasn’t economically feasible to transfer to Angola.

“Some people decided to move on, others are still here just kind of hanging in the wind,” she said.

An eight-year veteran of corrections, she started work at Allen Correctional Center at age 19.

“I came into corrections for a career,” she said. “I came here for better opportunities. Now what are you going to do?

“I’m done with corrections, that’s for sure. There’s no security in it anymore. If they can close Phelps down, they can close

any place down.”

DeQuincy Mayor Lawrence Henagan, perhaps the most vocal critic of the state’s decision to close the prison, said the goal

is still to get the unemployed back to work.

“It’s a sad day, but the sun is going to come up tomorrow,” he said. “We’re hoping that a lot of people out of jobs have found

something. That’s the key to all this — getting those people back to work.

“People in DeQuincy, they don’t just throw their hands up and give up. We believe in a glass half-full, not half-empty. That’s

the way people here are.”