When 17-year-old Christopher Simms stepped back into the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth in April, he was called a "rat" and a "ho." Other inmates sent a barrage of fights, cheap shots and punches his way, as payback for his court testimony about the conditions at the controversial Tallulah juvenile prison, officially known as the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish unit. His testimony was no secret -- during his time on the stand in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, Simms had made headlines and prime-time news broadcasts statewide.
On July 7, Gov. Mike Foster signed what is known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, which -- among other things -- shuts down the Tallulah facility by the end of 2004. It was a legislative victory for the staff at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). But, says JJPL director David Utter, that victory shouldn't ease the scrutiny of the state's three other juvenile facilities -- especially the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth, where in June alone there were 71 injuries and 171 incidents alleging abuse and/or use of force. Statewide, last year, the system averaged 500 injuries per month, according to JJPL, which monitors the state Accident & Injury reports and conducts random interviews of the state's 950 incarcerated kids.
All press inquiries for juvenile facilities are handled by the Department of Corrections (DOC). DOC secretary Richard Stalder was out of town on business and did not respond to an interview request, and DOC deputy secretary Trey Boudreaux did not return phone calls for this story.
Simms made it onto a few Accident & Injury reports this spring, thanks to his testimony. Other kids were upset, he says, that he'd ratted out the guards who brought in contraband. The guards got in their licks, too. Simms says that a surveillance camera recorded four high-ranking guards -- three lieutenants and one captain -- dragging him out of a dayroom into a lobby. There, with no cameras in sight, Simms says that he received a severe beating, one that left him with visible bruises and a cranial hematoma. "I got a big ol' knot on the back of my head and a big ol' purple mark on my chest. I was coughing up blood," he says. When the punching was over, the captain said, "Now go tell that to the people, you state baby."
Simms was released in late July and returned home to New Orleans where, last week, he celebrated his 18th birthday. He was thrilled to leave Jetson, he says, but Jetson is still a far better place than Tallulah.
Tallulah is "cut-throat," Simms says. "That's why people call it Little Angola."
Utter says the other juvenile facilities are also mini-Angolas. "The number of injuries coming out of Jetson is rivaling Tallulah in the bad old days," Utter contends. "And at Bridge City, a child died at the hands of a guard." At Swanson Correctional Center for Youth in Monroe, which has a particularly vulnerable population of mentally ill children, a guard broke one young man's jaw in front of a crowd of kids, says Utter. The fracture then went undiagnosed for four days.
The Juvenile Justice Reform Act specifically condemns the state's "over-incarceration of juveniles in large correctional facilities." Yet in early August, the DOC's first response to the Reform Act included a proposal for yet another large, 70-person dorm at Jetson, which already has more than 400 kids.
The message is simply not getting through to those at the DOC, says Utter. "All of these facilities look, feel like and smell like adult prisons." None has any place in juvenile-justice reform, he says.
Even Louisiana's top judge has condemned the state's juvenile system. In his 2001 State of Judiciary address, state Supreme Court chief justice Pascal Calogero said, "We do not have a real juvenile-justice system. Instead, what we appear to have are the pieces of a system -- components that often function without coordinated policies, procedures, strategies, or even shared information."
Juvenile justice expert Cecile Guin traces "today's mess" to a decade ago, when the system exploded after having pared down during the 1980s. "In the early 1990s, violent juvenile crime was at an all-time high, and voters were demanding three-strikes laws and asking judges to 'lock these kids up and throw away the key,'" says Guin, who directs social service research at Louisiana State University. So judges were responding to the constituents and handing down long sentences. In turn, the DOC was responding to the judges, who were demanding more prison space for kids, says Guin. Between 1992 to 1997, the number of incarcerated juveniles doubled in Louisiana.
"What disappoints me," Guin says, "is that Corrections waited until the Legislature insisted that they do something." She believes that the DOC should have altered its course once the crime wave and the "get-tough" philosophy had died down. "Corrections had the responsibility to say, 'Wait a minute, this is a different time. The research says that when you place kids locally and you implement alternatives to incarceration, they do better.'"
Each state has a choice, says Mark Steward, director of Missouri's youth services division. "You can set up your delinquent kids in large hellhole reform schools, which gets them hurt and makes them madder," he says. "Or you can put them in smaller treatment facilities where they don't fight, they don't kill each other, they don't kill themselves, and they come out better off." Steward has, of late, hosted several groups of Louisiana legislators and policymakers, who were prepping for this past session's juvenile-justice debates.
In the 1970s, Missouri closed down its large facilities. Today it has 32 facilities, each holding about 30 or 40 kids, in different regions of the state. Kids wear normal clothes and are on a first-name basis with staff members, who have college degrees. In St. Louis, Steward's division has five residential and four day-treatment centers, within 15 or 30 minutes of each kid's home. If parents can't get a ride on visiting days, a staff member picks them up.
Steward describes a typical facility: "There's carpet on the floor, there are nice wooden bunk beds with a little partition in between." Often, Louisiana visitors comment on the radios and flowers and trophies in the rooms, says Steward. "That makes the kids feel like it's a safe, nurturing place to get them over the hump. It puts life in them," he says.
One Louisiana group asked the youth in a Kansas City facility how many fights they'd seen. "There were kids who'd been in for over a year and there had not been one fight there," says Steward.
After three years, only about 5 percent of the boys and 1 percent of the girls are re-incarcerated after leaving Missouri's system. Contrast that with Louisiana, where, after five years, between 65 and 70 percent of kids are re-arrested (not necessarily convicted or sent to prison). Missouri has also looked at five years out and found it only added a few percentage points, says Steward.
Not every Missouri structure was built to be a juvenile facility. For the past few years, one of the girls' facilities has been on a prestigious college campus in a dorm there; the girls live on campus and eat with the college women. "We've only had it for two years, and we've already had two or three kids from there go to college," says Steward. "You show them a better world and you show them a better life."
Within his first few minutes at Tallulah, Christopher Simms took a punch. He had first been escorted along the long walk, bounded on both sides by high fences topped with razor wire. Once he got to his dorm, Louisiana A, he put his things inside his cell, then walked downstairs to watch television. "Boom," he says. "Right away, somebody snuck me." He'd been hit from behind by another kid, who said that Simms had been looking wrong at people.
Like other new guys, he fought his way to respect, he says. "I wouldn't back down. If you show a sign of weakness, they are going to take advantage of that. You'll be a punk," he says.
Even the guards scrap to earn respect, he says. "Anytime a guard can come out of his uniform and fight, we love that. We respect that," he says. "And if a guard earns the respect of, say, the big dog from New Iberia, then he's earned the respect of all his little foot soldiers, and they're about 50 deep."
Sometimes the tussles are gang fights -- "g fights" -- between groups of kids from different areas. Baton Rouge versus Lafayette. New Orleans versus Baton Rouge. Other times, according to court testimony, guards put a "hit" on a kid and pay the aggressor in cigarettes, lighters, fast food or marijuana. In August, a group of kids broke Simms' upper and lower jaw. "I was lying in a big ol' puddle of blood, half of my body in blood," he says. "I blacked out."
Simms is not a big kid. But he learned how to defend himself on the streets of New Orleans, where he'd land when his grandmother, who raised him, kicked him out for bad behavior. After sixth grade, Simms quit going to classes. "I couldn't tell you how a high school's hallway looked," he says. School hadn't been so great for him anyway. "I fought every day," he says. "I had a temper that couldn't be explained."
On the streets, he'd make money by pickpocketing or fighting people for somebody else. "I didn't have no money, you dig," he says. "I didn't know how to tap dance, didn't know how to hustle. I don't know how to break dope down. And I didn't know anything about Covenant House or any place like that."
"Every day I felt hopeless," he says. "The sun was tearing me up. I was dehydrated. I would get weak from not eating."
Finally, he was arrested for armed robbery after grabbing a knife from a friend's house and attempting to carjack a man at knifepoint. When he was brought before a juvenile court judge, he was wrung out and weary. "I just pleaded guilty to everything. I wanted to get off the streets so bad. I was so tired of running and ducking," he says.
Once at Tallulah, he quickly learned how things work. Like how the kids control the guards. "Let's say this is you, doing your paperwork," he says. "And a big dog comes up to you and says, 'Bring me a pack of cigarettes.' You say, 'You know I can't do that.'" The big dog tells his foot soldiers to start "bluesing," says Simms. Which means, basically, creating trouble--"a broke jaw here, broke nose there, and an eye swelled up like a watermelon." Now, the guard will be working overtime, completing paperwork.
The next night, says Simms, "the guard hands over the cigarettes and says, 'Man, you going to keep these niggers in line?' And the big dog says, 'I got you.' Now you got this group playing cards, that group playing checkers, and don't forget the ones in the library reading a book.'"
When they make the job easier, a few packs of Camel straights don't seem like such contraband, Simms explains. And cigarettes are gold in the correctional black market. A Camel straight torn in half can buy four bars of soap or four bags of potato chips.
The bluesing gets worse if the kids know that the guard doesn't want to lose his job. If his wife or mother are on his case or if he has three kids that he's supporting, the foot soldiers will find that out and report it to the big dog. "That nigger needs this job. Blues him," they'll say.
After a year and a half behind bars, Simms is now on parole, staying at his uncle's and his grandma's. He checks in a few times each week at the JJPL offices and is taking GED classes, where he tested out at 12.9 -- nearly a year past the 12th-grade level -- in his reading test. He's always liked to read, he says. Math is slower going.
Now, he says, he realizes what is necessary in life. "A stable home. A job. School. That's it." Once he has a job, he'll be set, he says. Right now, he's flirting -- big time -- with girls and concentrating on job hunting, his GED and staying away from the wrong environment. For example, the other day, "I saw my friend, he's in his 20s, big man; I dapp him off (tap fists), and jump in the car. I know his mama -- we're like family. He says, 'Shorty -- I've been waiting for you to come out and make this money with me.'" Simms told his friend that he was on parole and didn't want any part of that. Then he got out of the car. "I want my niggers to know that I'm there for them. But not like I used to be, you dig?"
CORRECTIONS: In last week's "Now Playing" cover story, an incorrect date was listed for Ballzack's next performance. Ballzack performs Saturday, Sept. 6, at the Howlin' Wolf. In the Aug. 5 cover story "Sir, No Sir" we incorrectly reported that Lance Cpl. Stephen Funk attended boot camp for two months in San Jose, Calif. In fact, his basic training lasted three months at Camp Pendleton, San Diego, Calif. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.
40 Under 40 Nominations
As Gambit Weekly prepares its annual "40 Under 40" issue honoring individuals who have a positive impact on the metropolitan area, we turn once again to our greatest asset: our readers. Who do you think deserves recognition? Help us find the best of the best -- teachers, artists, activists, business people, New Orleanians who are changing this city for the better. The requirements are simple. Nominees must be 39 years of age or younger, live in the New Orleans area and be worthy of distinction. Tell us about their background, accomplishments and future plans; be sure to include any additional information our selection committee might find useful.
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