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Network World - Oakdale, La., population 8,137, is a small town where residents say everyone knows everyone else. Though it’s unlikely most of them will ever get to meet one of their newest and most famous neighbors: Disgraced telecom tycoon Bernard Ebbers.
The 65-year-old's life as a free man ended Tuesday, when he reported to the Oakdale Federal Correction Complex to serve a 25-year sentence for his role in WorldCom/MCI’s $11 billion accounting scandal. Despite Ebbers' appeal, a federal court upheld his conviction in July.
Ebbers’ change in scenery is a drastic one, as he departed a gated community in Ridgeland, Miss., to head 230 miles south to the Federal Correctional Institution’s dormitory-style sleeping arrangements. Ridgeland has double the population of Oakdale and its median annual household income of about $43,000 is nearly twice that of Oakdale’s.
Ebbers is in the low-security portion of the prison, which houses 1,492 inmates and boasts “strong work and program components." The prison also is one of the biggest employers in this small town, says Brenda Fontenot, officer manager at the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce. Plywood manufacturing is another big job source in the town.
“There are a lot of churches here. A lot of closeness," she says about the town. “The prison is a very big part of our life here, but it’s its own entity."
A young man named Josh who fries chicken at The Burger Inn in Oakdale says residents don’t pay much attention to what’s going on at the prison. Occasionally corrections officers or other prison staff stop by on lunch breaks.
Ebbers’ name didn’t ring a bell for him. Peggy Byrd, advertising manager at the Oakdale Journal, wasn’t aware of exactly who Ebbers was, though she knew he was involved in some kind of white-collar crime.
The town does get abuzz when a high profile inmate arrives, Byrd says. “Life’s kinda simple around here," she says.
The locals were quick to point out that Ebbers is in the same prison as ex-Louisiana four-term Governor Edwin Edwards who is serving a 10-year sentence for his 2000 racketeering conviction involving riverboat casino licensing.
“[Edwards] is just about the most famous person we’ve had in Oakdale," Fontenot says.
“We’re kind of honored that Edwards is here," Byrd says. “He was the best governor that we ever had in Louisiana and I think most people around here feel the same way. He’s one of the reasons the prison was built in Oakdale."
About 20 years ago the prison opened and helped boost Oakdale’s economy, which was suffering under high unemployment rates, she says.
Byrd’s view on the ex-governor says something about the loyalty and respect for the past of this small town that is preparing for Oakdale High School’s homecoming this weekend. According to Byrd, homecoming is one of the biggest community events in Oakdale all year.
The picturesque main street includes the Oakdale Journal’s offices, a furniture store, carpet store, the town post office, a doctor’s office, library, one of many churches, a couple of law offices and Oakdale High School. The school was built in 1923 and is one of the town’s historical sites, Byrd says.