James Cox, a prisoner for nearly 30 years, is serving time for armed robbery at the Washington Correctional Institute in Bogalusa, La. In the past two weeks, reports the Wall Street Journal, he has been a first responder, one of dozens of inmates in orange jumpsuits who have been driving forklifts, clearing debris, and handing out food and water to people living near the Mississippi line. Convicts have been opening roads with axes and chainsaws and doing other useful work. At Angola State Penitentiary, near Baton Rouge, inmates produced mattresses for shelters. Some prisoners have even donated money from what little they are paid so evacuees can buy postage stamps.
“I’ve been a thug since 1966, and this feels good,” said Cox, a brawny, tattooed 53-year-old. “When people come up and you look into their faces and see all the sadness, and then they thank you like you are the one giving this stuff to them, it makes you tear up.” Opened in 1983 to house 500 inmates, the Washington Correctional Institute now holds 1,200 men, most here on drug charges, and it employs 418 people, making it one of the largest employers in the parish. Since Katrina, this medium-security prison 70 miles north of New Orleans has sent inmates every day with corrections officers to work in the parish. The jobs don’t pay well — 20 cents an hour, at best. Unlike the vast majority of the 43,900 people of this parish, the prisoners go back at day’s end to hot showers, warm meals, and electric lighting.