New jail shows hope for better future

In his novel “The House of the Dead” appear Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s words “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The philosophy behind the quote includes a belief that once individuals are placed in confinement, they are transformed from potentially feared to fearful, from victimizers to vulnerable potential victims. A well-established foundation of our own system of jurisprudence is that the state, once taking charge of a person, has a duty to provide humane treatment and become as much protector as it does punisher.

Certainly not even the most decrepit parish jail in Louisiana is in modern times a breeding ground for the type of cruelty the great Russian author described in his work inspired by his own stay in Siberia.

But cruelty comes in many forms.

Avoidance of cruelty in the administration of justice is a vital component of who we are as a people, nationally and right down to the local level. The reasons for this extend beyond morality and are as much concerned with community well-being overall. A community that tolerates cruelty even to the basest criminal risks further cruelty and criminal behavior. It is in the local interest to see rehabilitation when possible, as a means of preventing further victimization of the innocent, law-abiding people who go about their everyday lives. Prevention of crime whenever possible is preferred to the need for enforcement against criminals once a crime has occurred.

The abominable conditions of confinement at the old Lafourche Parish jail are legend and have been well documented within the pages of this newspaper. Sadly, those conditions have also made life difficult for the selfless public servants whose jobs have involved supervising and caring for the people held in that institution. Peculiarities and shortcomings of the physical plant have set the stage for assaults by inmates on other inmates, suicides and injuries to guards.

Last week Sheriff Craig Webre marked the opening of his new jail with a promise that its walls would not just warehouse offenders but seek to aid those wishing to return to society as productive citizens. At a time in our history when the “corrections” aspect of incarceration has actually been stripped from the mission statement of prisons in some jurisdictions, Sheriff Webre’s commitment to doing whatever it takes to find a better way, that can benefit the community as a whole, is refreshing, welcome and ever more necessary.

In Sheriff Webre’s jail are housed not just the individuals society has reason to fear, but also those whose crimes are non-violent or who may perhaps be adjudged not guilty following a trial, or exonerated following diligent consideration by prosecutors. In our local parishes, as odd as it may sound, inmates at the jails are as much our neighbors as anything else in some cases. Certainly that can be said of the jailers as well, and to suggest that we have no responsibility to see that all are safe and well-tended to is irresponsible at best.

When Sheriff Webre campaigned for taxpayer support of the project, a mindset resistant to construction of a new jail was strongly evident. That mindset was overcome by a 16 percent margin at the polls, and so the concept of a jail Lafourche Parish could be proud of, rather than one drawing shame, regret and costly litigation, moved toward being a reality.

When he spoke at the ribbon-cutting for the new jail last week, Sheriff Webre affirmed a commitment to the belief that the jail should not have a revolving door, that opportunities to have lawful segments of society lead by example within its walls should be encouraged, and that the jail’s dual role of protecting society while affording potential for opportunity must be exercised.

We believe Sheriff Webre’s record indicates his sincerity. We believe that the new jail allows potential for great community benefit. We are eager to see how his words will be put into action and look forward to reporting in the future on how his philosophies translate into results. Best intentions and even a spanking new jail are not a guarantee of success. But they are certainly indicators that success in some cases will be possible, certainly more so than has been the case in the past.

We wish Sheriff Craig Webre luck as he proceeds, and harbor hope that all of us will benefit, both within the new jail’s walls and without.