By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

The encouraging news is Louisiana no longer leads the country and the world with the highest prison population per capita (that title now goes to Oklahoma) thanks to sweeping criminal justices reforms measures passed in 2017 but there remains plenty of work to be done in helping the formerly incarcerated transition back into society, according to Rhett Covington, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. 

Rhett Covington, wearing a tie, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, speaks with chaplains and deacons and other members of the clergy involved in prison ministry at a luncheon at the Catholic Life Center on Nov. 7. According to Covington, reentry programs to help ex-offenders transition back into society are helping, but community support is also crucial. Photo by Bonn Van | The Catholic Commentator



Covington, a guest speaker at the recent bi-annual Chaplains’ Luncheon sponsored by Prison Ministry/Joseph Homes of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, gave an update on the state of the state’s prison system, including the construction of a new Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) on the grounds of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. The previous location of LCIW, also in St. Gabriel, was damaged in the 2016 flood.

“The footprint is on the opposite side of Hunt on higher ground,” said Covington. “The building plans include a set of program buildings between Hunt and LCIW that can be shared between the two facilities like a university type setting.”

Covington added the $110 million dollar facility is still short of funding, and construction is at least three to five years away. 

Covington said the DOC’s idea of transitioning from “security and punitive” to “rehabilitation and education” began as early as 2001. 

He said that by 2010, DOC “began to house more and more people in local jails due to the war on crime.” That meant inmates from south Louisiana would end up in rural parts of north Louisiana, according to Covington. And state facilities were beginning to offer opportunities for education and skills training that were lacking on the local front.

“We began to look at local jail programs and the goal was to try to get those people closer to home and to make sure they needed to be in the local facilities,” explained Covington. 

As of December 2018, DOC reported 14,880 offenders in state facilities and 17,517 in local facilities. Covington said other state prison programs have a larger concentration of population and more money involved in operations, staffing and programs for re-entry. 

Regional hubs were created to assess needs of each offender, he explained. Hubs also provide a 60-day re-entry program and services to prepare someone for release. It also provides a place for families to visit and reconnect before the person is released. 

“Regional hubs have done a good job in helping us understand how to connect people across the state,” Covington added. 

He said DOC has worked to enroll inmates in Medicaid and apply for Social Security replacement cards, identification cards and birth certificates. He added that programs utilized by the department include the TIGER (Targeted Interventions Gaining Enhanced Re-entry) assessment, developed by LSU, to assess risks and needs; and ATLO, based in Hammond, which is software that provides a secure environment for computer-based testing for the GED and other certifications. 

Covington said there are at least 15 computer stations at every prison and Chromebooks are available. WiFi is also being installed at prisons. 

However, it’s all monitored and security driven with cameras watching at all times and firewalls that will shut down a computer and take a picture of the user if a keystroke goes beyond the parameters. 

Though the computers might open the channels to communication and education, they cannot take the place of human interaction and acceptance in society.

“When someone calls me about prison ministry the first thing I’m going to ask them is, ‘If the offender leaves prison tomorrow, can they come to your church and sit in the pew next to your people?’” said Covington. “And, if they tell me no, I’m going to say, ‘Have a nice day.’ ”

Covington recalled his time as a field agent years ago when he identified a large concentration of churches in an area of Baton Rouge. He said he asked each church to adopt one person being released from prison but was turned down. 

“Anytime we have people returning to the community, and 95 percent of the people who are incarcerated will at one point or another come back to the community again, we have to allow them space at the table,” Covington said. “We have to have someone to give them a helping hand, someone to walk with them, particularly if they’ve been gone for a long time, life has changed.

“It’s very important for people of faith to not only think about how we can see these people who are returning to our communities as brothers and sisters in Christ, as children of God, and not judge them on the single worst action in their life and therefore keep them at arm’s length.”

He said it’s important for chaplains and others who work in prison ministry to spread the message to help the formerly incarcerated return to society and become a “voice for those who are voiceless.”

“Community support is needed and not just community support in kicking them to the curb or saying, ‘Hey, lock them up,’ but support in the ‘Hey brother, Hey sister, how can we get you back into treatment again, how can we get you the help that you need?’ ” Covington said. “Why do we want to doom somebody because we don’t want to take the time to care for them? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Covington, a parishioner at St. Alphonsus Ligouri Church in Greenwell Springs, said he views his job as a ministry and a vocation “that the Lord has called me to and I love it.”

“I’m frustrated on many days and I turn it over to him and I trust him,” he said. “I find myself as a Catholic man very fortunate and blessed to live my faith every day.”

For more information on how to become a volunteer with prison ministry, contact Jay Jackson, chaplain at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, at 225-235-5845.