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Can This Prison Change Its Stripes?

In northeast Louisiana, the notorious juvenile prison still sits, lights on, guards on alert. The state of Louisiana says that it's turned Tallulah around. Others disagree -- including a young New Orleans man who had his jaw broken there this spring.

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The horse-drawn hearse comes first, carrying the casket that holds nothing. Next, the trumpets, trombones and drums. Then the people holding homemade signs of black magic-markered headstones bearing the words "RIP Tallulah."

The mock funeral had assembled on this drizzling Saturday afternoon in early September on a corner in Central City. Umbrellas up, signs drooping at the edges, the procession of grandparents, parents with strollers, ministers in collars, and activists young and old made their way downtown on Loyola to their final destination: Orleans Parish Juvenile Court.

They planned to have a rally in front of Juvenile Court, but because of the spitting rain, they instead duck into the parking ramp between City Hall and the Civil Courts building, which houses the Juvenile Court on its first and second floors. There, the casket is lifted out of the carriage and borne into the open.

Bullhorn to her mouth, Avis Brock tells the crowd that this casket holds the "departed hopes and dreams of Louisiana's incarcerated kids." Brock -- whose daughter was held in a youth facility several years ago -- leads the 60 or so parents who organized this event, as chairperson of the group Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children.

Years ago, Brock learned the power of organized protest by walking alongside her grandfather, the late civil-rights leader Avery Alexander. Today, she says that the event's purpose is two-fold. They are here first of all "to mourn our children, who we've lost to the juvenile-justice system."

But they are also here to close down the juvenile prison located at Tallulah. "It's barbaric," Brock says. "Broken bones, nightmares, rapes -- when you hear that, you know they're talking about Tallulah."

Christine Hebert, standing a few feet away from Brock, recalls getting a late-night phone call in December 1997. At the other end of the line was a kid at Tallulah, telling her that her son Dustin -- sentenced to do time for joyriding and shoplifting -- had been taken to the emergency room in nearby Monroe. She found out the next day, she says, that Dustin's nose had been broken by a guard allegedly because he got up to go to the bathroom without asking.

Mary Mathews nods her head as she listens. She says her son suffered a broken jaw at Tallulah in March, but she didn't know about it until five days later. When she's handed the bullhorn, she tearfully tells the crowd her story.

Historically, one of the most vocal critics of Tallulah has been the United States Department of Justice, which described in a 1997 report to Governor Mike Foster an "unacceptable level of violence" in all four of Louisiana's juvenile facilities. Tallulah was singled out for a number of things, including a "disturbing" number of fractures to inmates' jaws, noses, cheeks and eye sockets.

The facility -- then called the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth (TCCY) -- had opened in 1994 at the tail end of a national juvenile crime wave. Legislators and the public were crying for longer sentences for delinquent youth. Judges reacted, and by the early 1990s, 400 sentenced juvenile offenders awaited bed space in Louisiana's youth facilities.

A private company had originally built and operated the facility at Tallulah, but in late 1999, the state of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections took it over and re-named it the "Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish Unit." Most people still call it simply "Tallulah." It currently holds about 400 kids -- a quarter of the state's incarcerated youth.

Prison officials say that they've turned the place around and that the days of widespread broken bones are behind them. There's vehement disagreement on this from the parents, activists, and former Tallulah residents at September's mock funeral. Some of them point to the case of a 17-year-old young man from New Orleans' Seventh Ward, who in May of this year suffered a fractured jaw at Tallulah. On the day his jaw was broken, the inmates were -- according to court testimony -- "running wild."

On Aug. 6, a month prior to the mock funeral, a tall teenager in shackles is being escorted into Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Section F, the courtroom presided over by Judge Mark Doherty.

The teenager Dion (not his real name) is led to a chair next to his attorney, David Utter, a wiry man with short-cropped hair who heads up the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. Utter leans over to his client's ear and speaks softly with him about a few details. Dion nods and replies in an equally quiet voice.

Until a few months ago, Dion was being held in the facility at Tallulah. He'd been placed in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody in September last year, after being sentenced to four years for auto theft and drug distribution. During his first 10 months in state hands, Dion will testify, he was assaulted on several occasions by guards and by other inmates.

Later testimony -- based on psychological evaluations -- will emphasize that a safe environment is crucial for Dion's rehabilitation because of the traumatic abuse he's suffered. When Dion was 6, his father stabbed his mother to death, and Dion was forced to watch the whole thing. His father was convicted of the murder and sent to the state penitentiary at Angola; Dion was passed back and forth between great-aunts, suffering more abuse along the way.

Dion just turned 17 in July and is a broad-shouldered young man with an earnest manner of speaking. His long legs seem particularly constricted by the standard-issue ankle shackles, which cause him to take tiny shuffling steps as he walks to the stand. He is the first witness in a hearing that will stretch over four days and encompass more than a dozen witnesses: Tallulah staff, inmates and DOC investigators.

Utter first asks Dion some general questions, such as how often he saw kids fighting at Tallulah ("every day") and how many times he'd been hurt by a guard at Tallulah ("about four times").

It's then time to discuss the day his jaw was broken. It happened, Dion explains, on May 18, a "typical Tallulah" morning. Each weekday, at a certain time, the kids in his dorm are escorted to the school building on the prison grounds. On May 18, a cadet guard had taken her post outside the door. Dion says he joked with the woman as he passed her, about how he was on a list of kids who didn't need to attend school that day.

Dion says that his comment was clearly a joke, but that Lt. Col. Irwin McColl -- the fourth-ranking officer at the facility -- "must had thought I was for real trying to get over on her."

He says McColl approached him and said, "Dion, carry your f--king ass to class." Dion made a flippant comment, he admits, and so McColl grabbed him by the front of his T-shirt and pulled him into the building.

Dion says that he had expected McColl to take him straight to class, but something completely different ensued: "Soon as I get by the second classroom away from the door, he wrapped his arm around my neck and went to choking me. I was getting light-headed, and I was getting dizzy."

Another guard, Lt. Michael Warren, arrived. Dion says he tried to explain what was going on, but Warren hit him in his mouth, knocking him to the ground. As Dion got up, he says, he could feel his jaw getting stiff and he was bleeding from the mouth.

At first, Dion testifies, he told the staff at the Tallulah infirmary that he "ran into a pole" because he was worried that the two officers might press charges against him, something that has happened to other inmates, he says. But after the Tallulah doctor told Dion that his story didn't seem plausible, Dion says, he told the physician what had happened and then filed a complaint with the DOC's Project Zero Tolerance (PZT) system, which investigates abuses within Louisiana's youth facilities.

There will be four days of testimony about Dion and his broken jaw. The events surrounding it will be dissected and reassembled in a number of ways by counsel on both sides.

The most obvious witnesses, McColl and Warren, take the stand separately, dressed in dark-blue correctional-officer uniforms. McColl is quite tall; Warren is a head shorter. Both officers testify to a similar chain of events: The kids were, as usual, "running wild." McColl, while trying to instill order, had seen Dion walking past him in the hallway and grabbed Dion's arm to ask why he wasn't in class. Lt. Warren then approached and said to Dion, "Why is your mouth bleeding?" -- a comment that McColl says he heard. Yet neither officer can say how Dion's jawbone was fractured.

David Utter couldn't be less convinced. The officers' accounts, he notes, are so similar and without detail that a Department of Justice auditor and even one of the DOC's own investigators found them fishy. Both suspected that the two officers had deliberately matched their stories.

The DOC's courtroom theory is that their two officers had nothing to do with the jaw. Instead, the DOC offers a new explanation: that Dion's jaw was broken in a fight with another offender.

Matthew (also not his real name) enters the courtroom in street clothes, an oversized light-blue North Carolina football jersey and dark jeans. His release date had been May 20, and so he had left Tallulah two days after Dion's jaw was broken.

Utter questions him first: "Did you ever get in a fight with Dion?" "Never," Matthew replies. Utter continues, "Did you ever have a beef with Dion?" Matthew says no, and then calls the idea that he could've hit Dion "some sort of a mix-up."

Matthew asks Utter, rhetorically, how he could've gotten in a fight with anyone during the school day, because he was never unsupervised. He had earned his GED, so he spent weekdays on cleaning detail, during which he always -- in accordance with the rules of the facility -- had a staff person accompanying him.

Utter changes the topic. Had Matthew been approached by Lt. Warren in his dormitory, soon after Warren had allegedly broken Dion's jaw?

Matthew testifies that Lt. Warren had entered his dorm and said, 'I need you to do something for me.' Matthew says that he had told Warren, 'I'm about ready to go home. So if it's bad, I ain't much with it.' Warren left, and so, Matthew says, he never found out what Warren wanted from him. Utter clarifies a few points to make the implication unmistakable: Warren may have wanted an inmate to take the rap for Dion's jaw.

But the rap for Dion's jaw may not, ultimately, be the most important part of this case. Throughout the hearing, Utter continues to take the case beyond the specifics of that particular incident. Over countless objections by DOC counsel, Utter questions nearly every witness about the general atmosphere at Tallulah; about documented and undocumented fights, abuse and broken bones; and about what he sees as inadequate staff training, high staff turnover, bungled abuse investigations, and chaotic, unsafe conditions. His strategy is apparent: even if the Tallulah officers are cleared of this specific allegation, the DOC is not off the hook, because it created the unsafe conditions that led to Dion's broken jaw. Essentially, Utter has put Tallulah on trial.

Before the hearing ends on Sept. 24, Dion takes the stand again, this time to be questioned by a DOC attorney. She notes that Dion had changed the story he'd given to the infirmary, about running into a pole. Why, she asks, should they believe him now? He shrugs his shoulder slightly. "Because I just told you," he says.

Injuries at Tallulah go in spurts, say Dr. Cecile Guin. Lately she hasn't seen broken jaws as often as broken eardrums and noses.

Guin has been interviewing Louisiana state inmates since the 1970s, so she knows each facility's specific reputation. She's now director of the Office of Social Service Research and Development at Louisiana State University and is considered an expert on the state's juvenile-justice system.

Guin shakes her head when she hears the name Tallulah. She had, in fact, tried desperately to halt its construction in the early 1990s. After spending years studying northeast Louisiana, one of the poorest areas in the United States, she thought that it was folly to place a juvenile facility there. It would be tough, if not impossible, to find people who could work well with children in an area known much more for violence and drug use than for education. So she sent letters to everyone she knew at the statehouse and then some. Nonetheless, the plans for a Tallulah facility moved forward.

Guin says she has, for years, watched Tallulah release young inmates only to see them commit more serious crimes. The state's statistics about recidivism (re-offending) would indicate that only 15 percent of the state's incarcerated youth re-offend. Guin says that the recidivism numbers for kids released from Tallulah are much higher.

"If we could just get their social security numbers and run a check on corrections, it wouldn't surprise me if 90 percent of the kids from Tallulah were back in the justice system," she says firmly. "Because it's so violent. That's 90 percent at a minimum. If someone asked me for a bet, I'd probably stake my car on it. That's how sure I feel about it."

Take the case of 18-year-old Joseph Ward. In July of this year, New Orleans attorney Clive Stafford-Smith filed a motion for Ward, who had been sentenced to die by lethal injection. Ward and another young man, Robert Smith, were convicted of kidnapping and killing Smith's sister, a 25-year-old elementary-school teacher. Smith was 18 at the time; Ward was 17. Both had been released from Tallulah shortly before the September 2000 murder.

The prosecution's theory is that Smith -- a severely disturbed kid who harbored fantasies about killing his parents because they'd left him at Tallulah -- thought up the scheme but that Ward pulled the trigger.

Ward is borderline mentally retarded and a follower -- to the point, says Stafford-Smith, "that if somebody told him to go to a tall building and jump off, he would." Those mental-health issues were never addressed at Tallulah, even though it's been estimated that 80 percent of the inmates within the facility need mental-health and behavioral treatment of some sort.

Originally, Ward had been sent to Tallulah for a fairly minor, nonviolent offense -- joyriding in his mother's car. He had suffered abuse in childhood, and things got worse at Tallulah, says Stafford-Smith, where he was raped several times and frequently beaten. The abuse turned "a mentally disturbed child into a severely mentally disturbed child," says Stafford-Smith. He contends that Ward's condition worsened to the point that Ward became capable of committing a terrible irrational act like murder.

Stafford-Smith knew that, within Ward's small "graduating class" from Tallulah, there were already six kids charged with capital murder. To Stafford-Smith, the link seemed undeniable. He decided that his defense of Ward would be a prosecution of Tallulah.

His 16-page motion, filed in Rapides Parish District Court in Alexandria, is titled "Born of the State's Own Abuse." It sets forth to "bar the State from torturing children in their institutions and committing a series of felonies against them, and then electing to kill the children when they -- almost inevitably -- commit offenses upon their release." The State of Louisiana, it argues, should also be condemned: "If the same state agents had performed this abuse upon their own children, rather than Joe Ward and Robert Smith, they would have been imprisoned for many, many years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary themselves."

If the motion is granted, Ward would not face the death penalty. But he is still likely to face a sentence of life without parole.

Sen. Don Cravins says that his office, on average, receives one or two calls every week about Tallulah. During the last session, he asked the Department of Public Safety and Corrections for the total number of injuries sustained at the institution. He had to hound them to get the data, he complains, and when it arrived it was what he calls "nicely colored." But even that limited information made Cravins conclude that Tallulah "is probably as violent now as it's ever been."

The Lafayette senator pulls no punches. "My ultimate goal," he says, "is to get Tallulah shut down."

He lists a number of reasons: rampant abuse, ineffective programming, and an environment that's become a de facto "training ground for Louisiana's adult prisons." The facility is also, he argues, "a horrible deal for the state -- we're spending way too much money. It will end up costing us at least $125 million when all is said and done."

The last point is the one that may finally allow Cravins to bar the door at Tallulah. An expert lawyer from Washington, D.C., agreed to look at the deal and to advise the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Cravins on how the state can exit its contract with the owners of the facility.

Cravins says that it's high time to expose who benefits from this contract. His committee requested a special legislative auditor's report, released in May of this year, to look into the costs and profits associated with the facility. Tallulah was built and at first operated by a company known as Trans-American Development Associates, owned by George Fisher, James Brown and Verdi Adam, all three close associates of former governor Edwin Edwards. The company is now called FBA but is owned by the same three people.

By Cravins' analysis, the report is particularly shocking. The auditor, Cravins emphasizes, could find no one in power -- not Edwards, not Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder, and not the mayor of Tallulah, Donald Walker -- who would actually take credit for selecting Trans-American.

Says Cravins wryly: "It's interesting. Richard Stalder did all of the amendments on the contract, so he knows the contract very well. As a matter of fact, he negotiated the first one, I'm sure."

Cravins says to look at the auditor's report is to understand how many millions of dollars the owners have made on the shoulders of the state of Louisiana. Most notable, he says, is "the $2 million bonus that they [the owners] paid themselves after Richard Stalder amended the contract in January 1997. The day after, they took a $2 million bonus. That really slaps you in the face. When you allow someone to take $2 million the day after you negotiate an amendment, that seems to be a relationship that's awfully cozy."

To which Stalder replies that he does "not have a cozy relationship of any sort with those people."

"I worked hard with those people," Stalder explains. He says that all of the re-negotiations regarding Tallulah were logical necessities and that he'd be happy to go through each amendment and explain it.

Cravins replies that he's not interested in Stalder's "filibustering" and he can't understand why Stalder has been so slow to act on Tallulah. "I would speculate that one would have to know exactly how Tallulah came to be to find out why he wants to keep it open."

Last session, Cravins passed a resolution requesting that the DOC look at alternatives for all the 400 young men now being held in the facility. "I should have directed, not requested," rues Cravins, who has seen no action from the DOC on his resolution.

But Stalder argues that Tallulah should stay open. "It is our only [juvenile] high-custody institution, it has our only high-custody housing units in the department," he says. "And I have no other alternative ready to take its place."

Stalder points out that he started his career as a correctional officer at Jetson Correctional Center for Youth, and says that his experience makes him even more determined to better the state's juvenile facilities. He says things are moving in the right direction.

"Tallulah is continuously improving," Stalder contends. "It is much, much better than it's ever been. It will be better tomorrow than it was today."

But reforms are not guarantees, he warns. "This doesn't mean," he says, "that there's not going to be a bad person working for us who's going to hurt somebody. We'll have to fire him and we'll help to prosecute him. If they hurt somebody, that's what I expect to happen."

After the last speaker puts down the bullhorn and walks away from the casket, the Little Stooges brass band kicks into a fast number. The sound reverberates within the concrete parking garage and people head over toward the music. They dance and wave white hankies that bear the image of a gravestone and the words: "Tallulah R.I.P. September 8, 2001."

One grandmother says that she's thrilled to see so many people show up for this event, but she has doubts about whether anyone in power even cares about the kids in Tallulah. She says that the remote location -- a five-hour drive one-way for most parents -- makes the facility almost a kingdom unto itself.

And once you get there, it's easy for outsiders to be fooled, says another mother. "To me, the looks of the place are very deceiving. When you drive up, there is a lot of barbed wire in plain sight. But otherwise it looks like it would be the best thing a kid could go to, because everything is clean and orderly, the grass is kept up, and you don't see trash on the ground. It looks like a model prison."

Her son, who was held in Tallulah in 1997, has different recollections: "There was nothing but fences everywhere. Flat. And no trees. Within the fences, I'm pretty sure that there are no trees at all."

He also remembers other images, like -- he says -- kids being beaten by guards every day, even after the DOC launched Project Zero Tolerance. He recalls one instance. It's a long story, but basically, a kid mouthed off to one guard. "So [the officer] sprayed Mace all in his eyes, all over the place. The dude had passed out on the ground because he couldn't breathe. [The officer] left him there, and then later came back around and dragged him to the infirmary."

One DOC insider says that stories like this are not, ultimately, about one guard and his behavior. When an officer is allowed to act badly for years, he says, that indicates that the institution or the state system as a whole tolerates -- perhaps even encourages -- that abuse. To indict only the officer is to miss the larger point.

David Utter would seem to agree. At the end of Dion's four-part hearing, Utter makes a motion asking that the court conclude that Dion's state and federal constitutional rights were violated, namely his 14th Amendment rights to safety and treatment, and his same rights under the State of Louisiana Children's Code.

Judge Mark Doherty may have had a feeling of deja vu as he heard Utter's motion. Last year, he presided over a case concerning the abuse of a youth being held at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center, a troubled juvenile facility owned by Wackenhut Corrections Corp. In March of 2000, Doherty ruled that the conditions of confinement and lack of individual rehabilitative treatment at Jena were "unconstitutional and unconscionable."

Utter recalls the Jena decision as a turning point. "Doherty's ruling was the first time that someone independent of the litigation, with no stake in the outcome of the case, said 'this institution is dangerous and hurts kids.' I think that [Doherty's] finding went a long way to chasing Wackenhut out of our state juvenile-justice system."

In April, the month after Doherty's decision, the Department of Justice issued a report calling the conditions at Jena "inhumane and unconstitutional." Soon afterward, Richard Stalder received a phone call. He remembers it well: "It was Wackenhut, saying, 'We're not going to do this anymore. We're done with juvenile corrections in Louisiana.' I said, 'OK,' and I sent my buses in and removed the kids.'" By May, Jena was empty.

Doherty is expected to rule on the Tallulah case sometime within the next few weeks.

Prison officials say the days of widespread broken bones are behind them. There's vehement disagreement on this point from parents, activists and former Tallulah residents. - ASHLEY HUNT
  • Ashley Hunt
  • Prison officials say the days of widespread broken bones are behind them. There's vehement disagreement on this point from parents, activists and former Tallulah residents.

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