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The Death of Tallulah Prison

An extraordinary campaign against racism and corruption takes down Louisiana's notorious Tallulah youth prison.
 
 
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For nearly 10 years, the Tallulah youth prison has sat on the edge of northeastern Louisiana — imposing, barb-wired, a warehouse for hundreds of young men locked on the inside. Built on the momentum of the national "tough on juvenile crime' wave of the early '90s, the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth (referred to as simply "Tallulah,' after the small delta town where it is located) has symbolized for many the intractability of the impoverished, lockdown culture of Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The Tallulah youth prison, considered by some to be the worst juvenile facility in the country, is notorious for its cruelty. Broken bones, black eyes, fractured jaws and rapes are everyday occurrences.

"You can't imagine the things they do to children at Tallulah,' says Brenda Brue, a New Orleans woman whose son was sent to the prison for over two years. "These children are abused by guards who are supposedly there to care for them. Guards beat on the children, sell them drugs and have sex with them. This is what is happening and the children are afraid to say anything about it.'

Yet in a state well-known for its racism, corruption and cronyism, a small coalition of parents of incarcerated children, lawyers and organizers managed to pass a transformative piece of legislation last June. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003 paves the way for a radical reconstruction of the state's juvenile justice system and mandates the closure of the notorious Tallulah youth prison. The passion for Louisiana's youth that united various parties into a powerful coalition can make for an equally powerful lesson. Sometimes unusual allies result in unusual triumphs. And perhaps, the most significant triumph is that the struggle to pass the Act of 2003 has ignited a movement for youth justice throughout the state.

Private Prisons, Public Disasters

The Tallulah youth prison never made any bones about rehabilitating its young inmates. In fact, the recidivism rate of the youth held there has increased to at least 90 percent over the years, according to Louisiana State University prison expert Cecile Guin.

The prison did, however, function quite well as a cash cow for the private for-profit corporation who won the state contract to open and operate the facility back in 1994. In May 2001, the state's legislative auditor found that between January 1995 and April 2001, three members of Trans-American Development Associates, cronies of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, pocketed $8.7 million dollars from the deal. Even after lawsuits forced the state to seize control of the facility in 1999, the three continued to put away up to $600,000 each fiscal year until the legislature finally ceased all payments except those which covered the lease of the facility. These annual lease payments by the state are scheduled to continue until construction bonds for the facility are paid off in 2012, after which the three men—not the state, parish or town—will retain ownership of the physical plant.

Almost six weeks after it first opened its doors on November 16, 1994, federal judge Frank Polozola declared a state of emergency at the prison "due to riots and an inability of staff to control or protect youth.' In 1995 Human Rights Watch reported that all of Louisiana's youth prisons violated international human rights standards and that the Tallulah facility failed to provide adequate education and programming to youth and inappropriately placed children in small, bare isolation cells. In 1996 the United States Department of Justice began an investigation and found that in just 20 days in August, 28 Tallulah youth were sent to the hospital for treatment of serious injuries. The investigation declared youth prison "life threatening and dangerous' to children. In 1997 the DOJ formally notified the state that conditions at Tallulah violated the United States Constitution and federal law. And finally, in 1998, following a bold lawsuit initiated by the fledgling Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana on behalf of children incarcerated at the Tallulah youth prison, the Department of Justice joined suit and Louisiana became the first state in the nation to be sued by the federal government over conditions in its juvenile facilities.

But the Tallulah youth prison is only one example of what is wrong with Louisiana's juvenile justice system. For years, Louisiana has had one of the nation's highest rates of juveniles in jails and group homes in the country. And while African American youth comprise barely one third of the state's population, they make up 78 percent of the youth behind bars. Contrary to the popular belief that youth prisons are a last resort for "out of control kids' who are violent and repeat offenders, 73 percent of Louisiana's young people are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Despite state constitutional mandates that the Office of Youth Development educate, protect and rehabilitate children committed to their care, conditions in Louisiana's youth prisons are startlingly violent and demeaning. Children routinely face humiliation and other forms of emotional abuse as well as severe physical abuse at the hands of guards. They are denied adequate education, medical and mental health treatment and are often sent to do their time far from their families and communities for excessively long sentences. Only nine months ago, 17-year-old Emmanuelle Narcisse was killed by a guard in another of Louisiana's facilities by a single blow to the head that was witnessed by dozens of other children.

Making History, Making Noise

When David Utter, Shannon Wight and Gabriella Celeste opened the doors to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in 1997, they had no way of knowing that their work would ignite a statewide juvenile justice movement only a few years later. Their bold move to file a class action suit on behalf of children incarcerated in Tallulah put them into direct contact with children and families with devastating stories. The lawyers began working to improve conditions inside the prisons and obtain early release for inappropriately placed kids, eventually helping to reduce the number of children housed in "secure care' by 66 percent.

But the lawyers made no pretenses that their legal work had solved all the problems. For one thing, no matter how much negative media attention the situation received, it seemed as though the elected and appointed officials ultimately to blame for the conditions were beyond reproach. Further, the improvements made to facilities, while significant, did not mean that children were safe and getting the help they needed. The Juvenile Justice Project saw that if they were really going to win justice for youth in Louisiana they would have to broaden their struggle and take it into new arenas.

At the same time, parents and grandparents of children suffering in Louisiana's youth prisons began to call the Juvenile Justice Project office with ideas and energy to take the struggle to another level. Gina Womack, the then-receptionist and now lead organizer, spent her time fielding calls from confused and scared parents needing support and angry parents demanding something be done about the system that was abusing their children and tearing apart their families.

"Parents wanted do something about the problem — something larger than just get help for their child. They wanted to change the system so that no one's child suffered what theirs had suffered,' says Womack. "And their voices were precisely what the struggle had been missing — the voices and stories of parents and children who had been victims of Louisiana's juvenile justice system who were now speaking out for change.'

Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) made their public debut in September of 2001 when they organized the "Mock Jazz Funeral,' a march that adapted a New Orleans tradition to mourn the lost freedom and departing dreams of their children. More than 150 people marched, and brass bands played while chanting parents and children led the way to Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. The funeral's double meaning soon became clear. Parents wanted more than the reform that the lawsuits had envisioned: They wanted the death of the Tallulah youth prison.

Anatomy of a Winning Strategy

In 2002 and 2003, the Justice Project lawyers and advocates along with the Families and Friends organizers and members began to formulate a more deliberate strategy. They wanted to orchestrate their myriad efforts to force the legislature to take action where the lawsuits could not. Their goal was to combine legal, legislative and grassroots strategies focused on a single short-term goal: close Tallulah and use all the money saved toward community-based alternatives.

The members of FFLIC packed the halls of the legislature and testified to the horrors their children suffered at the Tallulah youth prison. The development of a statewide Coalition for Effective Juvenile Justice Reform brought in new allies and broadened the campaign's base. Legal monitoring of the settlement agreements continued to put pressure on the Department of Public Safety & Corrections. And savvy legislative maneuvering built support in both the house and senate and from conservatives and liberals alike. The campaign even helped facilitate a trip for legislators, judges and department heads to Missouri to examine the juvenile justice system there — one based on treatment, education and respect for youth. One white, conservative Republican legislator who had previously been neutral on the issue came back completely converted from the experience of seeing facilities with no barbed wire, bars or cell blocks — and the resultant 7 percent recidivism rate compared to Louisiana's 70 percent. She stood in front of TV cameras declaring Louisiana needed to "close all of its secure care facilities and implement a model like Missouri's—a demand more radical even than what the campaign was asking for.

Aside from the severe opposition within the corrections department and the governor's office, there were internal struggles for the campaign as well. As the grassroots base of the campaign began developing a more autonomous identity and voice, parents and attorneys for the first time had differences of opinions on what was negotiable and what wasn't. In one instance, the campaign's lead attorney agreed to set back the date for Tallulah's closure by six months without consulting the parents — a move which infuriated them and taught everyone a lesson about the need to share equal representation at the table.

Ultimately the close partnership, never an easy one, proved to be powerful and effective. Families, organizers and lawyers strategize and negotiate roles as they struggle to keep building trust and solidarity with one another. The bill certainly has flaws, including the long wait period before the last child must be removed from the facility, but it is one of the most impressive wins criminal justice organizing in this country has seen in years. It impacts thousands of youth and families, and millions of dollars in services and state contracts.

"People said it could never happen,' said Grace Bauer, a member of FFLIC whose son spent time in Louisiana's youth prisons. "But people underestimate the power of compassion and a commitment to justice.'

A Different Tallulah is Possible

The story is not yet over. Besides the fight over the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, there is the town of Tallulah — an impoverished, predominantly African American town that depended on the prison for badly needed jobs. In an attempt to head off the opposition from the region during the legislative session, the campaign drafted a resolution that called for an examination of economic development in the region — an attempt to look for solutions beyond "industries of last resort' such as prisons. Carried by Senator Charles D. Jones in the senate, the resolution passed and has begun to stir an unanticipated movement locally opposing the state's proposal to use the facility as an adult prison once it is closed to children. "We don't want to be a prison town any longer' said Moses J. Williams, director of the Northeast Louisiana Delta Community Development Corporation located in Tallulah. Williams and other local leaders argue that the prison not only failed to bring the economic boom promised to local citizens but also devastated the local school system by enticing away the best and most experienced teachers with better pay. They are demanding that the facility be used to house a Learning Center with a satellite campus of the Louisiana Delta Community College at its core.

"When my parents were living, working and struggling here, people knew Tallulah as a bastion of the civil rights movement,' says Williams. "Now you say the name ‘Tallulah,' and people think only of the prison. They think ‘violence, corruption and child abuse.' That happened under my generation's watch and I don't want to go down with that legacy.'

Xochitl Bervera is a Soros Justice fellow working with Grassroots Leadership and Families and Friends of Lousiana's Incarcerated Children.