return to press room

FROM: The Advocate, 3.11.03

Prison contract calls for action

A high-security juvenile prison in Tallulah has been built and financed with one of the most outrageous boondoggle contracts in state history.

Legislative critics say the contract ought to be canceled. And a respected national organization that analyzes state policies involving juveniles argues that at least one state juvenile prison should be closed and offenders dealt with in other ways.

What's not to like about this scenario?

Unfortunately, there seems to be a go-slow attitude toward this problem in state government.

The Casey Foundation suggested reducing the number of juveniles at a single prison during the next 12 months while at the same time using the savings to expand existing community-based services.

Although the recommendation doesn't name the prison, most of the commissioners and speakers agreed it will probably be the high-security prison at Tallulah.

Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder said he agrees with the Casey concept, but the timeline is too quick. "I think we need to move with a great deal of caution," he said. "This thing has to be ratcheted down in a logical process."

We don't doubt that, but these ideas are not new.

Louisiana operates four juvenile prisons, and none of them has been more of a catastrophe than Tallulah. Built by longtime political allies of Gov. Edwin W. Edwards -- who is now himself getting a first-hand look at penal conditions -- the Tallulah prison was first operated by the company.

Problems forced the state to take it over completely. But the company, headed by George Fischer, a former Edwards cabinet member, continues to get its note paid by the state. And the Fischer-led company will own the jail once the cost of building it is paid, whether or not the state uses it.

We hope that legislators can get the state out of the contract. But in any case the need for emptying Tallulah can stand on its own merits.

The Casey Foundation's analyst Joseph Liu told a juvenile justice study commission that 77 percent of the juveniles in the four state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses.

Liu suggested removing low-level offenders from existing group homes. Those juveniles could be treated through day programs or probation "tracker" programs, opening group home beds for nonviolent juveniles held in prisons.

The state would save money out of its operating budget, as well as the payments to Tallulah's politically influential owners. At more than $150 a day, a prison is an expensive place to keep a juvenile offender. A group home is about $85 a day, and other alternatives even less.

We do not doubt that there is a need for tough juvenile prisons for some offenders. But the Tallulah story is an extraordinary combination of brutality toward inmates, political favoritism by state officials and rampant greed.

Surely that ought to lead lawmakers to say enough is enough during the coming legislative session.



return to press room