Convention Center commissioners Ryan Berni, Bonita Robertson, and Freddie King III all voted against ratifying the Prison Enterprises contract.

The governing body of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center on Wednesday voted against ratifying a $183,000 contract for iron fencing with Prison Enterprises — a division of the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections that sells services and products manufactured and provided by Louisiana prison inmates. 

But regardless of the vote, the contract is valid and the fence has already been built, according to the Convention Center’s Vice President of Finance and Administration Alita Caparotta. She said that Convention Center President and General Manager Michael Sawaya is authorized by a 2018 resolution to enter contracts up to $250,000 without board approval if the contracts are related to a pedestrian “linear park” the center is building along Convention Center Boulevard. 

The contract with Prison Enterprises is for wrought iron fencing for the Convention Center’s new transportation center, which Caparotta said was part of the linear park. The contract was not made immediately available for The Lens to review. 

“It’s problematic because we as commissioners have no authority to change it,” said Commissioner Ryan Berni. 

The board ultimately decided not to “ratify” the contract in a six to four vote. It’s unclear what will happen next, now that the board has voted to oppose a valid contract for a fence that has already been built.

“It’s a good question,” said David Phelps, general counsel for the convention center.

The Convention Center has not paid Prison Enterprises yet, Caparotta said, because the fence hasn’t been delivered. She said they are currently seeking another contractor to install the fence. 

“We can’t just go back to the vendor and say ‘oops,’ ” Phelps said. “We could nullify and bear the consequences for breaching the contract.”

In the end, the board asked Phelps to provide them with a full legal opinion on the center’s position and options. Caparotta said they would hold off hiring a fence installer until the board settles the issue. Berni also requested a full list of resolutions that allow the convention center staff to sign contracts without board permission. 

‘I have a problem with that’

The Prison Enterprises contract was on the meeting’s consent agenda — meaning it was not up for board debate — until Commissioner Bonita Robertson asked that it be moved to the regular agenda so they could discuss it. 

“I’m not sure how well versed everyone else is on this, but prisoners make cents on the dollar for this work,” Robertson said. “And I have a problem with that.”

According to a state legislative audit from May, inmates working for Prison Enterprises can either work to reduce their sentences or for wages up to 20 cents an hour. Prisoners ineligible to work for a sentence reduction must work for three years for no compensation at all before they can achieve the introductory rate of 2 cents an hour, according to the audit. 

In 2017, there were 767 inmates working for Prison Enterprises, according to the audit. Of that, 13.6 percent received no compensation, 17 percent worked for reduced sentences and 69 percent worked for wages somewhere between 2 and 20 cents an hour. The audit said Louisiana had the lowest inmate pay in the country besides three states that provide no compensation at all — Arkansas, Georgia and Texas. 

Commissioner Robert “Tiger” Hammond, who’s president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, also spoke up at the meeting to voice his opposition, saying that while he’d be happy to help get jobs to people recently released from prison, this was something else. 

“We’re paying the prison rather than the prisoner,” he said. 

Caparotta said that the staff chose Prison Enterprises for the work because they had been hired in the past to build fencing for one of the center’s parking lots.

“It was based on the idea that it would match the existing fence in Lot G so our campus would have one look and one feel to it,” she said. 

Commissioner Ronald Guidry Sr., who ultimately voted against the contract, questioned whether they could put the issue off while they decide what path forward they should take, given the objections from commissioners. 

“It is a timely matter,” said Commissioner Alfred Groos. “That area is not secured by a fence line right now.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.