Four hundred young men currently live within the walls of the Tallulah youth prison, now officially known as the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish Unit. Whatever its name, the facility is awash in difficulties, and it's time for the state to close it.
State Sen. Donald Cravins (D-Arnaudville), head of the Senate's Judiciary Committee, has asked the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) to explore alternatives for Tallulah's inmates. Cravins has been an outspoken critic of the facility and of DOC Secretary Richard Stalder. Such criticism often hardens feelings in the political arena, but DOC and Stalder should put aside such sentiments with regard to Tallulah.
When the youth prison at Jena was shut down last year, DOC managed the closing handily by transferring all Jena inmates to other juvenile facilities. But transfers don't address the problems that underlie this state's entire juvenile corrections system: facilities that are too big to deal personally with each inmate, and too many staffers who are inadequately trained and undereducated.
Currently, two-thirds of Tallulah's young inmates are nonviolent offenders. The Louisiana Children's Code requires that juvenile detention focus on rehabilitation, and each inmate should be professionally evaluated and treated according to that statute. Many nonviolent offenders would likely do better in less restrictive environments -- ideally, community-based programs nearer to their hometowns.
Stalder, who began his career as a correctional officer in the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth, knows about adolescent development first-hand. He acknowledges it is difficult to find properly educated and trained staff in the economically depressed area surrounding Tallulah. He admits there is violence at the facility, and that it is DOC's job to minimize it. And, he concurs, Louisiana needs to invest in more community-based programs as a way of rescuing at-risk youth.
Stalder also notes that -- partly as a result of last year's settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and other litigants -- the state currently invests more time and money in its juvenile-justice system. The wisest investment the state could make at this time would be closing Tallulah.
Tallulah was built in 1993, during the heyday of private-prison construction across the United States. Many such prisons were located in remote, economically depressed areas in order to boost local economies. But troubled teens require staff people trained in adolescent development. Such qualified personnel are more often found near urban centers. Furthermore, any economic advantages of relatively low-paying prison jobs are more than offset by the social costs and public safety risks of having a prison in a community. This fact was underscored two years ago when a group of Tallulah guards walked away from their posts in protest of $6-per-hour wages.
Above all, Tallulah is simply too big. Research consistently shows that big facilities are ineffective -- or counter-productive -- for housing young offenders. Tallulah was built as a 700-bed facility at a time when other states were already shutting down their large facilities. Recidivism rates at big facilities are uniformly high and the prison-type atmosphere and high inmate-to-staff ratios force correctional officers and inmates into stressful situations that often result in injuries.
If we're looking for examples of how to do it right, consider Missouri. That state shut down its large facilities, and its current system was praised in the report Less Cost, More Safety, released this spring by the American Youth Policy Forum. Missouri pays per-inmate costs equivalent to Louisiana's, but Missouri funds a regionally based system of small facilities (none with more than 85 beds), group homes, and community-based programming. All are staffed by college graduates with training in youth development. And because almost every child will eventually return home, parents and guardians are visited frequently by therapists and are provided with transportation to visit children and participate in family counseling. The results are impressive, report author Richard Mendel notes, because only 5 percent to 7 percent of Missouri's juvenile offenders end up serving time in the state's adult system.
That's about half or even one-third of what's seen in other states -- although Louisiana doesn't keep specific statistics about juveniles who "graduate" to the adult system. Sen. Cravins thinks the recidivism rate for Louisiana juveniles entering the adult system is somewhere near 75 percent. This alarming number is supported by John P. Whitley, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola's prison expert. In a 1997 letter to Polozola, Whitley criticized Tallulah for its inexperienced staff and poorly maintained facility. "I do not make these recommendations because of any sympathy for these offenders," he wrote. "I make these recommendations because it shocks me to think that approximately 70 percent of these offenders will come out of these facilities to commit further crimes."
We believe that Stalder wants to do the right thing. Toward that end, he should immediately begin to set up more community-based programs and other alternatives -- all in anticipation of Tallulah's closure.