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FROM: Times-Picayune

Death behind bars


Saturday May 03, 2003

Emmanuel Narcisse was an inmate in a state juvenile prison. That should not have cost him his life, but it did.

The Marrero 17-year-old was pronounced dead at West Jefferson Medical Center Thursday, an hour after an altercation with a guard during morning "pill call" at the Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth, Department of Corrections officials say.

Details about the incident were still sketchy Friday evening. But the Jefferson Parish coroner concluded that the teenager died of a blunt-force head injury in a manner consistent with homicide. Meanwhile, the state Department of Corrections has placed the guard involved on administrative leave.

The teenager's family and the general public deserve a full accounting of the incident. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, State Police and FBI are all investigating the matter. To the extent that some conditions have improved at Louisiana's juvenile facilities, federal government scrutiny is largely responsible. So the FBI's involvement in the Narcisse case is welcome.

While the teenager's death is horrifying, it isn't entirely a surprise that a juvenile inmate died in the state's custody.

For years, youth advocates have been warning that violence is rampant at Louisiana's juvenile prisons. They argue that many guards beat inmates, play them against each other or, at best, are utterly indifferent to their welfare. Last year the Corrections Department's "Project Zero Tolerance" investigators, who have often been criticized for overlooking abuses, substantiated 25 incidents in which Bridge City staffers committed acts of violence against inmates at the 180-bed prison. Teams of outside evaluators who studied the prison throughout May 2002 learned of more than 40 reports of excessive force by guards just that month, youth advocates note.

In this context, the altercation that ended in Emmanuel Narcisse's death is only the most recent and most extreme incident in a long pattern. It provides further proof that the state's juvenile justice system is badly flawed.

Louisiana imprisons juvenile offenders for minor offenses as well as major ones, at a cost estimated at $44,000 to $68,000 per inmate per year. For all that money and trouble, recidivism rates for juvenile criminals are higher in Louisiana than in places that balance punishment with rehabilitation. Our state would save money and get better results by transferring minor offenders into cheaper, less restrictive programs and reserving secure custody for the most serious juvenile offenders.

Emmanuel Narcisse was not an angel. His record includes shooting into another teenager's house; in the ensuing chaos, a pregnant woman miscarried. But regardless of his offense, he didn't belong in a place where an interaction with a guard can result in a blunt-force head injury.

Louisiana cannot rehabilitate juvenile offenders by using violence -- especially the kind of violence that lands an offender on a stretcher or in a grave.




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