As Louisiana continues working to reduce its incarcerated population, state leaders are ensuring that a new prison meets the unique needs of women involved with the criminal justice system.

A 2016 flood left Louisiana’s women’s prison uninhabitable and forced the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPS&C) to disperse women who are incarcerated to facilities throughout the state. In the move, many women lost access to rehabilitative services and programs due to limited resources or capacity.

Building a new facility from the ground up provided state leadership with an opportunity to rethink how a women’s prison should look, feel, and operate—especially in light of lessons learned from the Louisiana Women’s Incarceration Task Force. The all-female task force, established through a 2018 legislative resolution, was charged with studying Louisiana’s criminal justice system as it relates to women and recommending strategic changes to reduce recidivism and increase health and public safety.

The Crime and Justice Institute (CJI), funded by the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), staffed and facilitated the task force process, along with assisting DP&C on a gender-responsive strategic plan.

The task force’s 2020 report to the legislature outlined specific challenges women involved in the justice system face, such as prevalent trauma, history of victimization, and behavioral health needs. For example, the report cited a study revealing that 40% of incarcerated women experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as opposed to 13% of incarcerated men. The report prioritized 21 policy recommendations to improve physical spaces in women’s facilities, increase access to physical and behavioral health services, and enhance gender-responsive practices.

Integrating lessons learned from the task force process into the building design was not a forgone conclusion.

“The plan development was well underway at the time that this task force started meeting so a lot of things were mostly finalized,” DPS&C executive counsel and Chair of the task force Natalie LaBorde explained. “When I shared with [DPS&C Secretary James LeBlanc] some of [what the task force was recommending], I remember him calling the architectural firm and saying ‘hey, we’ve got some changes we need to make.’”

DPS&C acted swiftly to integrate the recommended changes. The new women’s prison, which broke ground on September 1, will be guided by a gender-specific approach to rehabilitation. The facility will offer gender-responsive programming, group and individual therapy, and a spectrum of treatment services. It will include a post-partum unit, specialized housing for women with mental disorders, and over 30,000 square feet dedicated to educational and vocational programming.

“I am not going to build a second-rate facility,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards. “We’re going to have a facility here that is state of the art, that makes sure we have every opportunity for vocational training, and education, that there’s skills certification in things like cosmetology, horticulture, welding, heavy equipment operating… just to name a few.”

CJI has been partnered with Louisiana to improve its justice system since 2017, when the state passed a comprehensive justice reform package resulting from its Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) effort. CJI provides ongoing technical assistance to implement the provisions of that legislation. In that time, Louisiana has dropped its population of incarcerated women dramatically—from more than 1,900 in 2017 to 1,244 at the end of 2021.

To watch remarks from state leaders at the groundbreaking ceremony, click here.