Youth prison abuse alleged

Sandy Davis
Date Published: 
April 28, 2008

LA: Youth prison abuse alleged

Youth prison abuse alleged

* Advocate staff writer
* Published: Apr 19, 2008 - Page: 1A

A state senator said Friday he will submit legislation next week to close Jetson Center for Youth by June 30, 2009.

“Louisiana was once notorious for having the most brutal facilities in the country,” Sen. Donald Cravins Jr. said at a rally on the steps of the State Capitol. “Some legislators had the fortitude to try and stop that, but here we are five years later without much progress.”

The Opelousas Democrat said the legislation he plans to introduce would not only close Jetson, an 850-acre boys juvenile prison near Baker, but also give the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission more power to make sure reforms take place.

The commission was formed during the Blanco administration to oversee reforms in the juvenile justice system.

The Advocate reported this week that promised reforms of the state’s three secure care facilities for boys have never happened.

The reforms were approved in the Juvenile Justice Act of 2003 and promised among other things the building of regional care facilities housing small groups of boys. Not one of those facilities has been built.

Instead, boys who violate laws are often sent by judges to one of the state’s juvenile prisons, including Jetson, Swanson (in Monroe) and Bridge City centers for youth, where the teenagers often end up spending years for minor crimes.

Teenage inmates at Jetson have said brutality has returned and they are beaten by guards and by other inmates and that sexual assaults are not uncommon.

Cravins, a member of the commission, which met Friday, told members he visited Jetson on Thursday and came away with concerns.

“There was no hope in the youths’ eyes; just hopelessness,” he said.

Cravins said some teenagers at Jetson told him they had been beaten while there. He did not say whether they identified their attackers.

A Lake Charles mother also told the commission her son was attacked at Jetson on Thursday.

“Two boys jumped my son and tried to rape him,” Kathleen Qualls said. “He had to fight them and no one came to rescue him. Our kids are supposed to be safe there.”

Commission members also listened to testimony from the head of the state Office of Youth Development, which oversees the three state juvenile prisons.

Richard Thompson, appointed youth development chief in February, told the commission he also has concerns about Jetson.

“Jetson may be better used as something else (besides a secure care facility),” Thompson said. “I want you to understand, I share some of your concerns about Jetson.”

Thompson earlier told The Advocate that Jetson has recently been “out of control.”

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is chairman of the commission, asked Thompson to investigate the allegations at Jetson and prepare a report for the commission in two weeks.

“We have no tolerance for kids being abused. I want the kids safe,” Landrieu said after the meeting. “If we have to, we will close Jetson and build something else where the kids are safe.”

Landrieu admitted that reforms have not taken place in the secure care facilities, but did say other parts of the juvenile system have moved forward.

“We are off track now,” he said. “But we can get back on and move forward.

Landrieu also said he is waiting for the Jindal administration to publicly support the reform programs.

“I’m hopeful the governor will articulate how committed he is to juvenile reforms,” Landrieu said. “When the governor says something is a priority, then money becomes available and it gets done.”

Thompson said youth development office plans to build about 10 to 12 regional secure care facilities for boys.

“We’re committed to doing that. We are committed to reforms,” Thompson said. “We hope in the next four years to have adequate regional facilities in place.”

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Kitty Kimball, a commission member, said all of the problems in the juvenile justice system should not be borne solely by youth development office.

“Our judges and district attorneys have a tremendous amount of work ahead of them,” she said.

She was critical of judges who hand down long sentences for minor crimes.

“I am going to ask my court to appoint three retired judges to look at particular cases to discuss with other judges that something (a sentence) might not be appropriate,” Kimball said.

Kimball was also critical of the number of employees at Jetson, particularly guards, who are taking “leave time.”

“The number of employees at Jetson on leave is unusually large,” she said.

Thompson told her that was true.

“There are too many people taking advantage of that program,” he said. “We’re trying to do something about that.”

Several dozen members of Family and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, including the mothers of Andy Naccio and Eric LaSalle, attended the meeting.

Naccio died recently after inhaling from an aerosol can in a welding class at Jetson. LaSalle was featured in an article Thursday in The Advocate about his experiences during the nearly four years he was imprisoned at Jetson.

“I’ve listened to a lot of rhetoric today,” Grace Bauer, a community organizer for FFLIC, told the commission and then she pointed to the back of the room where a large group of mothers of imprisoned teens were sitting.

“There’s your human toll,” she said. “While everyone here is trying to coordinate their schedules and not offend everyone, we should be worried about them.”

Bauer said she went with Cravins on Thursday to tour Jetson — where her son was incarcerated seven years ago.

“Nothing has changed out there,” she said. “It even smells the same.”

After the commission meeting, the mothers, members of FFLIC and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy organization, held a rally on the Capitol steps.

“Downsize and regionalize,” the mothers chanted. “Close Jetson down.”