Parents protest conditions at juvenile detenion center

Parents protest conditions at juvenile detenion center

by Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune
Thursday April 17, 2008, 4:00 PM

Mayor Ray Nagin and his staff Thursday failed to meet with a group of people whose children have been locked away in the city's Youth Study Center, described in a federal lawsuit as a moldy, vermin-infested place where some children are confined for 23 hours a day in single cells.

"When he did come out to see my wife and I, he was shackled up," Reginald Dupart said of his 17-year-old son who spent two weeks at the center recently. The city, which operates the Youth Study Center, at 1100 Milton St. in Gentilly, released Dupart's son to the state, which moved the teen to the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth in Baton Rouge.

The group of about 12 people, including parents of children who are in the court system and attorneys demanding immediate upgrades at the center, waited for more than an hour outside Nagin's second-flood office before they were told that the mayor was in a meeting and could not come out to talk with them.

Representatives of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which sued the city over the center's conditions and what they call inadequate education programs, said that late Wednesday the city attorney's office said it would meet with them Thursday.

"We are hopeful that this means for the first time, the City of New Orleans wants to resolve this problem," said Dana Kaplan, head of JJPL. "Stop using excessive solitary confinement. Improve education and mental health services. That could happen tomorrow."

Just as Thursday's visit to City Hall had been planned and announced to Nagin's team, JJPL's concerns that the Youth Study Center's conditions are "inhumane and unconstitutional" have been going on since the center reopened after the storm.

JJPL spent seven months last year presenting Nagin's team with suggestions for making the center more than a holding cell. But in December, the nonprofit agency felt it had to sue in order to make changes.

"The center had gotten so bad that we could not, not sue them," said attorney Carol Kolinchak, JJPL's legal director.

One month after the lawsuit was filed at U.S. District Court in New Orleans, the city barred JJPL advocates, including Kolinchak, from visiting children held at the center. Judge Ivan Lemelle in March ruled that the city must allow the agency access to its clients, agreeing that the ban was payback for the lawsuit.

After Hurricane Katrina forced the Orleans Parish Prison staff and inmates to evacuate through floodwater and filth in August 2005 - when the 7,000- inmate population included about 100 juveniles - Sheriff Marlin Gusman said his jail will only hold juveniles being charged as adults - a mix of suspected armed robbers and murderers who range from 14 to 17. That made the Youth Study Center the last resort for children handcuffed by police during investigations.

The Youth Study Center was outdated and poorly managed even before Katrina, and was reopened in the summer of 2006 even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency had found that it should be replaced rather than repaired, the lawsuit says.

"If any parent abused their child like the system abused them, the Department of Health would turn the child over to the state," said Gina xxxx, of Families and Friends of Incarcerated Children. who also waited as Thursday morning faded away without any sight of Nagin.

Nagin's spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett appeared before the television news cameras after the group had left City Hall, saying that the center is a "priority" for the Nagin administration.

Those words aren't enough, said the 15 or so women and men as they gathered their thoughts later Thursday.

And Quiett's words weren't any comfort to Reginald Dupart, who lived at the Lafitte public housing development before it was shuttered after the hurricane. Asked what his son was accused of, Dupart said he didn't want to talk about that. It wasn't why he came to City Hall on Thursday, he said.

"Why would you lock a kid up like that?" Dupart said, of the solitary confinement used at the center. "You only get treated like that at Angola. It's not just my son, it's everybody's sons. It's repetitious."

Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa [at] timespicayune [dot] com or (504) 826-3304.