- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

DEQUINCY, La. (AP) - It’s been more than a year since C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center shut down, but the property and buildings in southern Beauregard Parish still sit empty.

State officials said they are working to find a new use for the property. Local officials said they believe that will eventually happen.

The state closed the 942-bed, medium-security prison in November 2012, saying it would save millions of dollars.

“I’m very disappointed we don’t have something back in it by now,” DeQuincy Mayor Lawrence Henagan said. “I thought we would, but there again, I guess I’m hard-headed enough I haven’t given up on it either.”

The state is working on finding a new occupant but “a final use has not yet been identified,” Pam Laborde, Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said in an email.

A proposal to turn the grounds into a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility developed enough for Henagan and a couple of other local officials traveled to Washington D.C. to discuss plans, but the project ultimately fell through, Henagan said.

The once-bustling facility now sits mostly empty. Laborde said two DOC employees are still assigned to Phelps.

When the prison closed, 269 employee positions were lost.

“I think most state employees feel like, well the government is gonna make sure I have a job and that I get my salary and that is just not correct,” said Robert Henderson, who was warden when the prison closure was announced. “I don’t think it’s any more secure than the private industry now.”

Locals were upset because they believed DOC sprang the news on prison officials and employees.

“I still say people were done dirty. I hear people all over the state say they were done dirty,” Henagan said.

When Phelps closed, 77 employees were transferred to other state jobs. Of those, 38 remain with DOC and eight with other state agencies, Laborde said. Fourteen retired and 17 have left state employment.

“I think my feelings have kind of mellowed a little bit, but I always felt that Phelps was less expensive to operate than some of the other prisons,” said Henderson, acknowledging that Phelps wasn’t the only prison closed by the state. “Angola was the most expensive prison and where did they transfer the Phelps inmates? How is that a savings?”

An employee of Phelps for 7 1/2 years, Gina Pitre said she still feels hurt.

“I still feel angry about the whole situation because … it’s a sense of betrayal,” Pitre said. “What was awesome about it was the public was behind us one-hundred percent, but it still wasn’t enough to change the mind of the one person that it mattered to.”

When the prison closed, she began going to school in Texas to become a diesel technician. She said she is now in her second training course and well on her way to a new career.

“It’s funny because this has always been a dream of mine, but I never had a way to make it happen,” Pitre said. “In a way, it was a blessing in disguise.”

Pitre has racked up a fair share of school bills, which she believes she could have cut down if prison employees had been given more warning, giving her more time to plan.

“I still believe to this day that had the situation been handled differently, it would not have been as much of a shock and it would not hurt as bad,” she said.

She said she has heard mixed stories from others about their job and career searches. Some, like her, have gone back to school, some have found employment, and some have struggled to find employment matching their managerial experience, she said.

“It’s been hard; it’s been rough,” Pitre said. “I miss the prison and the way that we were. I don’t think people realize how much of a family we were and still are.”

Although people worried that local businesses would be hurt, revenues in DeQuincy have “held pretty steady,” Henagan said.

“I guess maybe one of the things that has helped us is there’s so much construction stuff going on in the parish, people were able to get them a job of some sort to support the families,” Henagan said.

When the prison opened in 1958, the land was deeded to the state by Edgewood Land & Logging Co. with the stipulation that if the property were used for anything other than a prison for a period of three months, the property would revert to the company.

Mayor Henagan believes that the deed restriction now belongs to Owens-Illinois, which bought Edgewood in the 1960s, but said the area has not pursued legal action out of concern it could hinder bringing in a new company.

“One side of me says, yeah let’s pursue it, but another side of me says it doesn’t really matter to me who has it to lease it as long as we get those people back to work in there,” Henagan said.

While Phelps sits inside the southern edge of Beauregard Parish, its mailing address was in in the Calcasieu Parish city of DeQuincy.

Many of its workers lived in DeQuincy. Henagan said that is why he was so concerned.

“There are people here that I was elected to take care of and try to do the right for and it bothers me to think that they weren’t,” he said. “It bothers me that we haven’t gotten the solution to the problem.”

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Information from: American Press, https://www.americanpress.com

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