“Behind the Wire”
Perspectives from a retired prison warden
BRYAN TARNOWSKI PHOTOGRAPH
“There are no walls that stand so high, between people as averted eyes.”
– College yearbook of (ret.) prison Warden
Frank L. Jobert Jr. (LSUNO ’73)
Opening the 1973 yearbook of Louisiana State University at New Orleans, retired prison warden Frank L. Jobert Jr., stands out from the other graduating seniors pictured.
In the picture, he’s 40 years younger, with long hair, a bright smile and a palpable sense of excitement.
His father, Frank L. Jobert Sr., a Falstaff brewery worker in New Orleans, completed the sixth grade at Gentilly Terrace Elementary School. His mother, Shirley Solis Jobert, a part-time bookkeeper, graduated from John McDonogh Senior High School. Her rapid tallying of team scores on Ladies Bowling Night impressed young Frank, who likes to think he inherited his mother’s acumen for accounting.
Jobert Jr. became the first college graduate in his family. “Becoming a prison warden was the last thing in my mind,” Jobert recalls.
On July 2, 1973, after a brief stint as a donut maker for Tastee Donuts, he began a corrections career, reporting to work as a purchasing agent for the Louisiana Training Institute (LTI) at Bridge City, La., a juvenile detention facility.
Today, almost 40 years later, Jobert’s cheerful graduation photo appears is an incongruous start to a long career in the grim business of running state prisons in Louisiana.
Jobert, who turns 61 in October, retired from the state department of corrections in 2003, nearly a decade ago. His three decades “behind the wire” included 20 years as a warden of state prisons for adults and juveniles in the New Orleans area. He looks back on his career with mixed emotions.
“The nightmares stick in my mind,” he says.
In a later email, he reflects on the cat-and-mouse relations between jailers and inmates. “It was an exciting career and never a boring day!”
Overall, Jobert offers a valuable historical perspective on corrections in Louisiana – a state notorious for recording the nation’s highest incarceration rates per capita.
He was one of 12 state prison wardens in Louisiana during the 1980s, a draconian period of major prison construction and little public appetite for rehabilitation. “I likened us to the 12 apostles,” Jobert jokes.
The wardens were philosophically divided. Many were traditional security officers: ‘lock them up and throw away the key.’
Jobert was a protégé of the late C. Paul Phelps, a pioneering state corrections secretary who advocated rehabilitation and treatment.
In 1983, Phelps appointed Jobert as warden of Jackson Barracks, a minimum-security work-release facility for 300-plus inmates on the 100-acre National Guard base, located in a residential area of the Lower 9th Ward near the St. Bernard Parish line.
Phelps viewed Barracks as a “light at the end of the tunnel” for motivated, rule-abiding inmates seeking to graduate from higher security facilities, near the end of their sentences. “We taught life skills, work habits, work ethics and tried to get them ready to re-enter society as taxpayers rather than as burdens on the system,” Jobert says. “Nobody did really good studies on recidivism. We did pretty good, but nothing to write home about.”
One prisoner – blind in one eye – earned a college degree. A work-release inmate rescued an elderly couple from their burning home in nearby Arabi; he became a hospital fire prevention officer. Two other inmates were commended for aiding a heart attack victim. There were concerts by musicians (such as Oliver “Who Shot the La La” Morgan) and boxing matches and team sports. Some 50 senior citizens were bused into the prison daily for a hot meal and card games. The visits had a “calming effect” on the inmates, he said.
Jobert allowed inmates to earn nominal amounts of income by washing cars, selling hobby crafts and performing auto repairs. Several inmates once offered to mow the grass at his home. “I told them if I did that I would be locked up here with you.”
In 1993, the national standards-setting American Correctional Association gave Jackson Barracks the highest ranking of all 15 penal facilities in Louisiana, with a 99.2 percent score based on 418 corrections criteria – including inmate accountability. Inmate rule violators were shipped back to high security prisons. Inmates returning 15 minutes late from work release assignments were counted as “escapes” – a practice that inflated publicized reports.
Jobert formed a “chase team” to pursue escapees, but it wasn’t enough.
In 1993, an inmate, allegedly high on crack, raped and murdered the wife of a National Guard colonel. In ’94, two inmates escaped over the razor wire, leading cops on a four-state manhunt that ended when one of the escapees shot and killed himself. Area neighbors and The Times-Picayune called for closing the prison. National Guard commanders and Gambit unsuccessfully opposed the sudden decision.
Jobert helped the prison’s 130 employees find other work and then finished his career where it began, LTI-Bridge City. He oversaw 150 juveniles as an assistant warden until retiring.
“Corrections is just a warehousing operation,” Jobert says today. “You have to stop (children) from entering prison in the first place. The way to solve the problem long range is to correct the failures of the family, the education system, the churches – everybody has to pick up the slack.
“The kids aren’t born ‘bad’. It’s their environment, their upbringing and lack of hope. They turn to a life of drugs and alcohol as an escape; then the life of crime begins and the cycle starts to repeat itself. Give these kids hope, education and meaningful opportunities and the ship will right itself. Don’t wait for corrections to solve the world’s ills.”
Like C. Paul Phelps, Jobert advocates “intensive supervision” by state probation and parole agents instead of incarceration for many offenders. “You’re talking $5 per person a day for probation and parole compared to $30 to $40 daily for incarceration.” He says politicians still lack the “political will” to adopt Phelps’ 1980s plan.
Jobert says his biggest headache as warden was finding qualified employees. Pay and education requirements were too low. Applicants had to be 18 or over, with no criminal record and pass an entrance exam. “We used a psychological exam, but we threw it out because it became a barrier to hiring,” he recalls.
Jobert spent all but one year of his three decades in state prisons under federal court-supervised plans to ensure constitutional protections for inmates – a hot topic in New Orleans.
“It takes a lot of money to meet the goals of a consent decree,” Jobert says. “C. Paul [Phelps] used to say, ‘if you don’t have a consent decree, get one’. The consent decree was something we bitched about but it was our best friend at the end of the day. We all complained about the monthly reports to the federal judge and the supervision by outsiders looking over our shoulder, who we thought didn’t know what they were talking about. But we liked the funding we received to run the facilities properly.”
Nearly 10 years after his corrections career ended, Jobert can still joke. A reporter asked, “How did Frank Jobert end up in prison?”
The retired warden laughs, and replies with his own word play.
“Everybody makes mistakes.”
Frank Jobert Jr. and his wife Deborah will celebrate their 39th wedding anniversary October 13. They have two children, Ryan Jobert, 31, and Megan Jobert, 21. Warden Jobert, who earned his MBA from UNO in 1978, says undergraduate courses in sociology, human resources and business law “helped with administration of staff and inmates.”