A Department of Corrections official knew the extrajudicial practice was going on but little has been done to correct it.
The head of Louisiana’s prison system knew the state was keeping thousands of people behind bars long past their release date, according to a new court filing in a lawsuit by Rodney Grant, a man imprisoned 27 days past his court-ordered release date.
In a May 23, 2019, deposition, James LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC), testified that he knew the extrajudicial practice was happening for at least seven years.
LeBlanc supervised a 2012 internal study, which revealed that 2,252 people were held past their release dates each year at an average of 72 days of overdetention per person. The investigation also found that in January of that year, the DOC had a backlog of 1,446 people waiting for prison officials to compute their sentences. By the time their paperwork was processed, over 83 percent of people in the backlog had waited past their release dates.
Louisiana, which was the nation’s incarceration capital until 2018, routinely keeps people behind bars for weeks, months, or sometimes years beyond their release dates. In February 2019 alone, the DOC imprisoned 231 people for an average of 44 days past their court-ordered release dates—or a total of more than 27 years in a single month.
The DOC did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that if you are convicted, you do your time and then you are released,” William Most, who is representing Rodney Grant and whose eponymous law firm has helped numerous people who have remained imprisoned past their release dates, said in a press release. “In Louisiana, the state has completely failed to release people on time.”
In 2012, DOC officials set a goal: reduce the number of people held past their release dates to 450 people per year at an average of 31 days per person. They didn’t succeed. According to a 2017 DOC internal investigation, an average of 200 people per month were still held an average of 49 days past their release dates.
As of September 2018, the DOC acknowledged on its website that “it can take up to 12 weeks to calculate” a release date. It has since changed its wording to remove the estimate.
Delays can be attributed in part to technology shortcomings. Local sheriffs and the state prison system do not have a shared computer system, which means prison officials must wait for the sheriff’s departments to submit physical paperwork regarding sentencing. In many parishes, this paperwork is driven from each parish to the DOC in Baton Rouge once a week. This means that a person sentenced after that particular day may have to wait another week in jail. That person may have to wait even longer for prison officials to calculate the amount of time served and the time remaining on their sentence, a process that can take over a week.
Prison officials have rebuffed offers by other state actors to solve the delayed releases. Debbie Hudnall, the executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, stated that she met with DOC officials numerous times and offered to begin emailing documents. But she testified to the state House of Representatives in December 2019 that officials told her that they “did not have the capability of receiving that.”
Rodney Grant spent nearly one month behind bars beyond his court-ordered sentence. On June 27, 2016, Grant was arrested on a 15-year-old warrant for a burglary charge. Three days later, he pleaded guilty and the judge sentenced him to time served. He should have been released that same day. Instead, he was released 27 days later and only after his sentencing judge repeatedly contacted the DOC about his continued imprisonment.
In 2017, Grant sued the DOC and LeBlanc, alleging that both violated his due process rights and committed false imprisonment by incarcerating him beyond his sentence.
Grant is not the only one who spent additional time behind bars. Overdetention cost Ellis Ray Hicks months of his life. On Jan. 4, 2018, four days before his scheduled release date, Hicks learned that the date had changed—for the fourth time—to July. The computation officer had extended his release date again after Hicks had filed motions in court and Hicks’s family members had contacted him.
Hicks’s extra prison time forced his aunt to postpone heart surgery until he was released and could care for her during recovery. It was not until Hicks contacted Most, the attorney, who in turn contacted the DOC, that Hicks was released on April 25, 2018. One week later, he took his aunt to the hospital for surgery, then nursed her through recovery.
LeBlanc said in his May 2019 testimony that he wasn’t aware of any DOC employee being fired, demoted, or even reprimanded because of overdetention. Terry Lawson, the computation officer who extended Hicks’s release date, was not reprimanded, but Hicks is suing him, along with the DOC, for false imprisonment, negligence, and violation of his 14th and First Amendment rights. His suit is now in the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. Hicks is not only seeking damages but also a permanent injunction that would require the DOC to end its practice of overdetention.
“If Louisiana wants to give up its position as the highest-incarcerating state in the world, it should release the people who shouldn’t be in prison at all,” said David Lanser, an attorney who works with Most and is representing Hicks.
Hicks agrees. He has been out of prison for nearly two years. “I suffered months of extra incarceration,” he told The Appeal. “It’s a large issue. It’s not just me—it’s a class of people. … I don’t want [DOC] to get away with it because they’ll just continue that activity.”