Louisiana activists demand closure of youth facility

Louisiana activists demand closure of youth facility
By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer

(FinalCall.com) - With allegations of abuse arising and a cracking infrastructure at the Jetson Center for Youth, a Louisiana state senator plans to move forward with a legislation proposal demanding the closure of the correctional facility by June 2009.

“Louisiana was once notorious for having the most brutal facilities in the country,” said Sen. Donald Cravins, Jr. at a recent rally in front 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 legislation he plans to introduce would not only close the doors at Jetson, a boys juvenile prison situated on 850 acres, but also empower the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission to effectively ensure correctional facilities reforms will be enforced.

That commission was formed during the tenure of Gov. Kathleen Blanco to oversee juvenile justice system reforms. A recent news report pointed out that promises of reform for the state’s facilities for boys have gone unmet. Over five years ago, the Juvenile Justice Act was passed and inspired hope that a new and safer regional facility would be built. That has not occurred.

Now an onslaught of charges of brutality, beatings by prison guards, fights among young inmates and sexual assaults have become the norm. Instead of being sent to the promised new facility, young violators of the law are sent to Jetson, Swanson, or Bridge City. Advocates complain that even those who commit minor crimes have to serve time alongside convicted murders.

Sen. Cravins recently visited to Jetson and shared his experience with the commission during a meeting. “There was no hope in the youths’ eyes. Just hopelessness,” he said.

“Jetson may be better used as something else besides a secure care facility,” said Richard Thompson to the commission. He heads the state Office of Youth Development. “I want you to understand, I share some of your concerns about Jetson. Jetson has been out of control. ”

Mr. Thompson has been ordered by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to conduct a thorough investigation into allegations of problems at Jetson. That report is to be presented to the commission within a matter of weeks.

“We have no tolerance for kids being abused. I want the kids safe,” Lt. Gov. Landrieu said.

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

Members of the Family and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children attended the meeting then led the protest outside along with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. Grace Bauer, the group’s statewide organizer, visited Jetson with Mr. Cravins. “Nothing has changed out there. It even smells the same,” she said.

Ms. Bauer’s son served time in Jetson 7-years-ago and she joined other hurting mothers at the commission’s meeting to make her voice heard. “I’ve listened to a lot of rhetoric today. While everyone here is trying to coordinate their schedules and not offend everyone, we should be worried about them (mothers),” said the Family and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children organizer.

Kathleen Qualls told the commission how her son was beaten behind bars. “Two boys jumped my son and tried to rape him. He had to fight them and no one came to rescue him. Our kids are supposed to be safe there,” she said.

Despite the web of problems, Mr. Landrieu saw a window of opportunity. “We are off track now. But we can get back on and move forward. I’m hopeful the governor (Bobby Jindal) will articulate how committed he is to juvenile reforms. When the governor says something is a priority, then money becomes available and it gets done,” he said.