The way the warden sees it, the more than 400-pound black bear living in the middle of the sprawling Louisiana State Penitentiary is an extra layer of security.
"I love that bear being right where it is," Warden Burl Cain said Monday. "I tell you what, none of our inmates are going to try to get out after dark and wander around when they might run into a big old bear. It's like having another guard at no cost to the taxpayer."
The bear was first seen by an inmate crossing a road in the prison on Friday. It was taking a stroll near the center of the state's only maximum security prison, which is about 115 miles northwest of New Orleans. Most of the roughly 28-square-mile prison is run as a farm, but about 5 1/2 square miles is mostly untouched piney woods.
Prison workers measured the bear's footprints, which were 6 inches in diameter, Cain said.
"Every inch equals 75 pounds, so that would make it about 450 pounds," Cain said. "The wildlife people told us they think it's a big female they've been tracking for a while."
Up to 10 bears on prison grounds
Prison officials believe they have eight to 10 bears on the grounds, said Gary Young, head of the executive management office at the prison.
Maria Davidson, manager of the Large Carnivore Program for the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, doubts there are that many, but marvels that even one was spotted in an area of high activity such as the center of the prison.
"Bears are actually very shy. Their tendency is to run and hide," Davidson said.
As for acting as an unpaid prison guard, Davidson doubts that the bear would provide much of a deterrent to a fleeing prisoner.
"We've never had a predatory attack by a black bear in Louisiana, to our knowledge, on pets or livestock," she said. "As for a bear coming out and rushing an inmate, I don't see that happening."
The prison, known as Angola, is isolated and has plenty of other dangerous wildlife, including alligators, rattlesnakes and wild pigs, Young said. The last recorded escape was nearly three years ago, and the inmate was quickly recaptured before leaving the grounds.