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Hearing to probe allegations of violence at juvenile prison


4/14/03 12:40 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Since it opened in 1994, Louisiana's Tallulah youth prison has been the source of tales about guards beating teen inmates and guards calmly watching while the inmates brawled with each other. Young prisoners routinely complain of broken bones, black eyes and other injuries.

Former Tallulah inmates will testify in a unique hearing set to begin Monday, ordered by Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty, who has said conditions in the prison are unconstitutional. The hearing follows Doherty's ruling that five teen inmates must be removed from Tallulah because rampant violence puts their lives at risk.

Tallulah critics hope the hearing will force the state to shut the prison down.

"The evidence is going to show that there's still way too much violence at Tallulah, that there's all sorts of corruption and it's the antithesis of what a juvenile facility should be," said David Utter, head of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and the attorney for several of the former inmates.

The state has consistently denied allegations of violence. Richard Stalder, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, has said problems at Tallulah have been fixed. Stalder's department has drastically cut the prison's population and instituted reforms to reduce violence and improve educational and medical facilities, he told a state legislative panel in February.

But the prison -- in rural, poverty-stricken northeast Louisiana -- has had problems since it first opened as a privately run facility.

The three men who won the state contract to operate the prison had no experience in juvenile prisons, but all had close ties to then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. Edwards is now serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison in Texas after his conviction on unrelated extortion charges.

The state was forced to take control of the prison in 1999, after several private firms ran Tallulah and several lawsuits were filed against the state, all alleging an epidemic of violence. A series of U.S. Justice Department reports also detailed violence among inmates and beatings of inmates at the hands of guards.

Corrections officials say the state has been addressing the need for reforms under a 2000 settlement with the Justice Department, which has not complained about the pace of progress at the prison.

Doherty ordered a 17-year-old prisoner released from Tallulah in 2001 after the teen testified that one guard restrained him while another guard punched him, breaking the teen's jaw.

Last November, Doherty ordered that all five teens he had sentenced to Tallulah be transferred because conditions there violate Louisiana's Children's Code, the state's law book for the treatment of minor offenders. The code demands treatment for minor inmates on a par with the treatment they should receive from their parents.

Tallulah is a place where "the expression of hostile feelings constitute(s) the normal tone of interactions between guards and youth," Doherty wrote in the 2002 ruling. "Sadly, the closest a youth may come to relief from the threat of violence may be in solitary confinement, which leaves its own mark on emotional health."

Doherty is the only Louisiana juvenile court judge who has ordered inmates transferred because of poor prison conditions.

Monday's hearing follows an order from the state Supreme Court, which instructed Doherty to investigate his own allegations.

The youths involved in Monday's hearing were sentenced to terms at Tallulah for offenses including parole violations, assault and theft.

In interviews Sunday, mothers who had visited their children at Tallulah recalled their sons telling of routine fights among inmates. The women said the room where they visited their children was full of other teens with bruises and cuts.

"They had bandages on their faces, their arms, everywhere," said one woman, who asked that her name be withheld to protect the identity of her 17-year-old son, one of the teens involved in the hearing.




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