return to press room


Youth facilities correctional catastrophies?

As advocates and opponents of Louisiana's troubled juvenile justice system prepare for possible legislative reform this spring, a court hearing in New Orleans could determine the direction of the debate.

Judge Mark Doherty of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court will decide if two youths housed in the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish Unit in Tallulah should be transferred. If Doherty decides to remove the inmates, opponents believe this will strengthen their reform position.

Since 2001, Doherty has ordered the removal of five imprisoned youth. The judge based his decision on conditions he deemed unsafe at the facility.

Reformers view Tallulah, one of four youth prisons operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, as the perfect example of how a youth prison facility should not be operated.

The prison has a documented history of abuse involving inmates and corrections officials.

Lake Charles attorney Thomas Lorenzi has defended youth offenders for more than 20 years. He supports Doherty and believes Tallulah should be closed.

"Tallulah happens to be the worst of the bad. I don't believe any theory regarding youth services justifies the complete absence of meaningful treatment education or rehabilitation efforts at Tallulah. It sure as hell should not justify the wanton brutality of youth that would not be tolerated if they were adults."

Lorenzi said local residents would be upset if they had a family member serving time in Tallulah or any of the state's secure facilities.

"The situation today is far worse than it was 10-15 years ago. Back then, Scotlandville was terrible but everybody knew it was and efforts were made to prevent children from being sent there."

Scotlandville, near Baton Rouge, opened in the 1940s as the Louisiana Industrial School for Colored Youth. Today, the facility is named the Louis Jetson Correctional Center for Youth.

Tallulah made national news in the mid-1990s following a litany of physical, sexual and mental abuse allegations.

In 1995, Human Rights Watch reported that inmates were not provided adequate medical, dental or mental health treatment.

As a result of that report, the U.S. Justice Department toured the facility and reviewed the state's overall system. Federal experts concluded that Louisiana's juvenile justice system was the worst in the nation.

The federal government sued Louisiana over conditions at all of the state's juvenile prisons in 1998. A settlement was reached in 2000.

Since 1999, the Department of Corrections has been in charge of the juvenile prison facilities through the Office of Youth Services. Prior to that, a private security firm managed the jails.

The state has spent about $98 million on the juvenile prison system — $32 million alone on education programs.

Opponents say that abuse has not stopped.

"I have met with youth at Tallulah for years. You cannot be involved in representing kids at Tallulah without becoming sickened by the constant number of broken jaws, beatings and sexual assaults that go on," Lorenzi said.

The state champions its efforts, stating that rehabilitation and education services have improved.

"Education services are better. Violence is down," said Secretary Richard Stalder, of the Department of Corrections. "Anyone who says there has not been significant progress at Tallulah or any other facility are not acquainted with the facts. If a person does not believe it, then they should go visit."

David Utter, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said lack of accountability weakens the state's argument that things are better.

"Nobody is saying nothing should be done with troubled youth. The kids are held accountable, but the system that supervises them isn't. To this day, there have been only a few indictments of adults who may have abused or sanctioned the abuse of any child in the Department of Corrections system.

"Stalder's comments about the improvements miss the issue. If these places are safe, what has that cost the state of Louisiana? Louisiana can't afford to incarcerate all these kids and Stalder's experiment of trying to fix the situation has failed," Utter said.

JJPL, based in New Orleans, has utilized a grass-roots campaign to spread the word for reform.

JJPL's voice, along with parent groups, were heard by the state Legislature and the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Commission .

The JJC was created in 2001 to examine the juvenile justice system and make recommendations for reform.

Earlier this month, the commission completed a final report. A legislative bill that outlines the future of the state's juvenile justice system will be presented this session.

The JJC recommends 27 changes, one of which is the closure of at least one Louisiana youth jail facility.

Because this is a gubernatorial election year, nobody knows how many, if any, changes will be made.

Regardless, Doherty will go ahead with his hearing.

Lorenzi cannot understand why the New Orleans judge is the only state jurist addressing the issue.

"When it comes to Tallulah and our whole juvenile system there is a hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil approach," he said.



return to press room