Tallulah Hearing

            The case against "Tallulah," a juvenile prison in the northwestern part of Louisiana, continued the week of April 14 in Juvenile Court Section F in New Orleans.

           Discussions about the appropriateness of private and state prisons for youth in Louisiana have been raging for the past few years. This spring, these debates increased in intensity through three big events: 1) the release of a study on youth incarceration in Louisiana written by the Casey Foundation and commissioned by the Juvenile Justice Commission of the state legislature, 2) presentations at Critical Resistance South, a group opposed to the prison industrial complex, in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans by activists, including Dr. Angela Davis, and 3) the hearing called by Judge Mark Doherty, Juvenile Court Section F, on whether the courts should continue sending youth to Tallulah prison.

            Students in my writing class at Douglass High School have had the opportunity to participate in all of these events this spring. So when we attended the hearing in Judge Doherty's court this week, we were well prepared with background information.

            From the hearing and conversations with people who attended it, it is clear that inmates and visitors alike consider Tallulah the worst and harshest juvenile facility.

            Witnesses called by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) ranging from current inmates and youth counselors to experts in the field of youth corrections have made a strong case against Tallulah. Their testimony describes the severe mistreatment of youth by the guards, including sexual intercourse between guards and inmates.

One witness who is serving ³juvenile life² (incarceration until the age of 21 for second degree battery) and was formerly a Tallulah inmate, testified that sexual behavior and force are used at all five juvenile facilities heıs been in. But at Tallulah, the force and sexual abuse were excessive.

            This youth found his way to the infirmary a few times as a result of fighting with other incarcerated youth. However, he also went to the infirmary as a result of being punched by guards. He noted that this was a battery, the same offense for which he was incarcerated. Yet to his knowledge the local police never investigated the report he filed. They certainly never interviewed him or allowed him to have legal counsel to represent him in this or any other prison incidents in which he was harmed or punished.

            Inappropriate physical contact of another type happens in sexual situations. This witness testified to having sexual intercourse with more than one female guard. And once he was disciplined for masturbating in the shower, an act he denies. The guard who wrote him up was female and had entered the male shower area even though female guards are not supposed to be in that area.

            State attorneys representing the Department of Corrections suggested in their cross-examination that the testimony of this witness was just a matter of the witnessıs word against the guardıs. JJPL attorneys and the witness, however, emphasized that the witness never received any copies of written complaints he filed nor any explanation of the decisions prison officials made regarding his complaints.

            Another witness, a counselor at Tallulah who has a degree in Psychology and is doing field work at Tallulah to fulfill requirements for a Masterıs degree in counseling, testified that the juveniles at Tallulah help themselves and heıs just their to steer them on the right road. Despite the fact that this counselor works with a caseload of only 12-15 inmates at a time, he could remember little about the counseling he offered them. This revelation is especially surprising given that his work at Tallulah is part of his training to become a counselor.

            It is clear from the testimony that our state has failed its most troubled youth in many ways. They are often incarcerated in remote parts of the state that require drives of up to five hours for visits from their families, who are important parts of support and rehabilitation. The counselors who work with inmates are inexperienced and unable to recall details of their counseling sessions, even when they have written records of such sessions in front of them. And in too many cases, adults who work at the prison stoop to levels of violence and inappropriate sexual relations with inmates.

            The hearing makes clear that something must be done to improve the situation for youth who are incarcerated and that the Department of Corrections has more work to do in response to this and previous cases brought against it.

--Christopher Burton,
Frederick Douglass High School