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FROM: Times Picayune

Despite Legislature's vote to close it,  
Tallulah debate still rages

Times Picayune

The Associated Press
5/16/03 7:36 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- The Department of Public Safety and Corrections argued Friday in federal court that a long hearing in New Orleans on youth prison conditions has ballooned beyond all reason, and should be shut down.

But the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana argued just the opposite, saying deplorable conditions at the now infamous Tallulah youth prison warrant continued examination.

Meanwhile, a half-mile away in the Capitol, remarkable and unexpected consensus about one of the state's biggest scandals coalesced this week. Tallulah is to be closed as a youth prison, Louisiana lawmakers have proclaimed.

Tales of broken arms, broken jaws, forced sex with guards and random violence have penetrated so deep that no one argues against shutting the prison down anymore, not even Richard Stalder, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, who until recently was deeply skeptical of closing it.

On Wednesday evening he sat next to Rep. Mitch Landrieu, a principal reformer, at the very same committee table, as though they had always been in perfect agreement. Stalder announced he didn't have much to say, said he supported Landrieu's reform bill, and the bill duly sailed out of the committee.

Earlier in the day, the Senate passed similar legislation -- it would shut Tallulah as a youth prison -- with barely a dissenting voice.

"Mr. Secretary, I want to congratulate you on what's happening in the Legislature," federal judge James Brady remarked to Stalder at the end of Friday's hearing.

Tallulah may be over as a political issue, but the issue of its current existence is not settled. Friday, Stalder and his persistent critics were in federal court fighting each other again, because a state juvenile court judge in New Orleans, Mark Doherty, said he believes conditions at Tallulah are still shocking.

Doherty ordered five teens moved out, Stalder appealed the order, and the State Supreme Court told the judge to hold hearings that would justify his contention that the youths' rights were being violated.

The hearings started in April, and they were replete with disturbing stories of persistent violence and brutality. But in the view of the Corrections Department they went too far, way beyond the supposed focus on the original five young people.

Now, the Corrections Department wants them stopped, arguing that the juvenile justice reformers have turned them into full-blown hearings about conditions at Tallulah.

That issue has been settled, the Corrections Department says. The Justice Department, which had filed suit against Louisiana in 1998, and the state reached agreement in January: conditions would be improved, and populations reduced.

"The fact is, the general conditions of confinement have been litigated," the Corrections Department lawyer, Richard Curry said in court Friday.

The hearings in Orleans, with their expert witnesses and their thousands of pages of documents, are just more of the same, and to pretend that they are only about the five juveniles is "only a sham, a pure pretext," Curry said.

And Curry reminded the judge, who also seemed perplexed by how elaborate the Orleans hearings have become, that he had previously warned against redoing the Tallulah case, the "whole ball of wax," as the judge had said before. He said Friday he would issue a ruling soon on the state's shut-down request.

The hearing's conclusion demonstrated that, whatever happens next in the legislature, the argument over the way teenagers are locked up in Louisiana is not over.

"There are times when the state has five lawyers defending Tallulah and Stalder," David Utter, head of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, told the court. "The way to stop this is to stop the violence. I would encourage the state to take dramatic steps to change these places."

Times Picayune



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