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FROM: The Economist

Tallulah Tales: a particularly ghastly jail

PEOPLE in America's growing "juvenile corrections business" try to
avoid the word "prison". But no one would mistake the grim fortress at
the edge of this down-at-heel town for anything else. Just past a
string of junk shops, decrepit houses and long-shuttered storefronts
sits a series of dull beige buildings surrounded by a chain-link fence
and razor wire.

Tallulah is the most notorious of Louisiana's four youth prisons. After
it opened under private ownership in 1994, the company that ran it
tried to cut costs by skimping on salaries for guards and on food,
clothing and schooling for inmates. Guards maintained control by
beating inmates. Conditions improved after the state Department of
Corrections took over in 1999, but reports of violence continue. One
young man had his jaw broken by guards. On April 14th a local
juvenile-court judge, Mark Doherty, began hearings on whether the
prison should be closed.

Critics maintain that Louisiana's whole juvenile-justice system is
unfair and counter-productive. Fewer than one in ten of the 1,300
youths the state locks up at any given time are found guilty of murder,
rape, armed robbery or other seriously violent crimes. Most are first
offenders, and most have been found guilty of property and drug crimes,
not violent ones. Some are younger than 14. Black children who
misbehave are more likely to go to jail in Louisiana than white ones
who commit the same offence. Rehabilitation programmes are minimal:
most inmates commit more crimes after their release.

These worries are shared not just by the usual liberal do-gooders but
also by tax-conscious conservatives who chafe at the high costs of
incarceration, which come to about $55,000 per inmate per year. In
March a commission of state legislators called for closing down
Tallulah and using the savings to pay for "halfway houses", day
treatment, counselling and other programmes. The reform plan also calls
for responsibility for juvenile justice to be removed from the state's
Department of Corrections.

Passing a law to do this will not be easy. A complex web of contracts
obliges the state to pay the construction debt for Tallulah, which it
doesn't own, even if the state shuts down the prison. (The actual
owners are three friends of Edwin Edwards, a former governor who is now
in federal prison for unrelated misdeeds.) And the state's secretary of
corrections, Richard Stalder, has some powerful defenders.

Many of Louisiana's district attorneys and sheriffs instinctively back
prison wardens rather than penal reformers. Although conditions might
seem Dickensian now, they are less chaotic than they were before
Tallulah was built: in the early 1990s juvenile prisoners slept in
broom closets and under other inmates' beds. So far the state's
Republican governor, Mike Foster, has not taken a position on the
reform plan, but his closest adviser used to be a district attorney in
rural Louisiana.

Ever since Huey Long's days, public services in Louisiana have had as
much to do with providing jobs as with looking after the needy (or the
criminal). This is a state that prefers to care for its elderly in an
elaborate, labour-intensive system of private nursing homes rather than
spend money on nurses visiting people in their homes or on other forms
of preventive care. Tallulah may be dangerous, inefficient and
counter-productive. But the juvenile-correction system employs 1,800



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