Bayou Betterment

The former correctional officer mops sweat off his brow as he plays two-on-one basketball against kids he would have once called offenders. Michael Gaines gestures toward the man who's trying to block a layup by one of the kids. "In the old days, he would have just stood here in his uniform and watched while the kids played ball with each other," says Gaines. In those "old days" -- about six months ago -- Gaines was a deputy warden, overseeing a staff of lieutenants, captains, and officers. Today he's called deputy director, and his staffers, called youth-care workers, are newly trained at managing adolescent behavior. Their charges are the 70 delinquent children, ages 13 to 20, who reside at the crown jewel of Louisiana's juvenile-justice-reform program, the Bridge City Center for Youth.

Gaines and his boss, director (and former warden) John Anderson, point out signs of reform as they walk among the mossy live oaks that create a canopy over the yards of this onetime Catholic orphanage, a cluster of red-brick buildings across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. This summer, the state pulled back the razor wire surrounding the former Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth, plucked the word "correctional" from its name, and relaxed the staff dress code from blue uniforms to polo shirts and khakis. The goal? To remake Bridge City into a model, "Missouri-style" facility that will serve juveniles from the New Orleans region.

Currently, only about 40 percent of Bridge City's kids hail from the New Orleans metropolitan area. The state's pilot program is also still small; by the end of August, about 24 young men will be living in three Missouri-style dorm areas, remodeled at about $8,000 a pop. In place of military-style bunks and blankets, metal footlockers, concrete floors, and open group showers, the new areas offer a softer, homier environment. That means carpeted floors, windows hung with curtains and fronted with houseplants, and showers divided by bright curtains (they'll soon have permanent individual stalls). In the living area, unlocked wooden wardrobes stand next to wooden bunk beds, covered with colorful quilts. Across the room is a group of comfy couches arranged around an end table. It's here, on these couches, that a lot of the dorm's work is accomplished -- through peer-group meetings called "circles."

"When we wake up, we check in, call a circle," says Joe, a young man from New Orleans who lives in the first remodeled Bridge City dorm, called Ujima after the Kwanzaa principle for collective work and responsibility. The group also holds routine circles after lunch and at the end of the day, and as necessary, to discuss concerns or complaints with the other kids and the dorm's manager, youth-care worker, and counselor. Additional, impromptu circles are conducted standing together outside or wherever they're needed.

The difference between this dorm and those at other Louisiana juvenile facilities is most apparent during free time. At Bridge City, the young men giggle and joke, work on art projects, write in journals, put an arm on another youth's shoulder when helping him with homework. Gone are the tough poses, the tense jostling, the strictly enforced personal-safety distances.

Getting to this point took some adjustment. Eight teenagers moved into this dorm in June. But by late July, three of those residents had transferred out and been replaced by three other kids, all of them new to the juvenile system. "[Circles] weren't being called consistently. The group was at a standstill," explains dorm manager Patrick Riley. Bo, one of the original eight residents, nods his head. "It was the same thing everyday," he says. "[The circles] were dragging us down more than bringing us up." Eventually, participating in the process will be mandatory for everyone. "We wouldn't do this as a rule," says Gaines. But in this pilot stage, the young men are allowed to opt out, which one teen did, saying "it wasn't for him." The other two were asked to leave because they were verbally aggressive.

In July, the state officially opened Ujima with a press conference and a visit from Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. During the 2003 governor's race, Blanco, a former schoolteacher and the sitting lieutenant governor, was the first gubernatorial contender to sign on to a juvenile-justice-reform platform. The young men in Ujima say that she spent a long time talking with them, about circles, their dorm's new look, their faith, and their families. "You can tell she's a mom," says Joe. "She talked that mother talk."

The governor laughs at the assessment. "I did ask them what they hoped to do when they were released," she says.

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"You've got some things going for you in Louisiana," says Molly Armstrong of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who's spent the last year in Louisiana and the last decade working with a wide range of governments and their juvenile systems. For instance, she says, in Louisiana, juvenile-justice reform has an unusually high profile. "I think it's amazing you get the level of attention to the issue [here]," she says, crediting advocates for pushing it into the public forum and keeping it there. To Armstrong, the state's biggest advantage is Blanco. "The governor actually cares about juvenile-justice issues," she says. "That's unbelievably rare."

In 2003, while Blanco was still running for office, the Louisiana Legislature passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, prodded by exposés, litigation, and the death of a child at the hands of a Bridge City guard. The statute, Act 1225, specifically condemns large correctional facilities and "declares it to be the policy of the state of Louisiana to assist in the development and establishment of a community-based, school-based, and regionally based system."

Blanco won election later that year and took office in January 2004. Soon afterward, she took reform a step forward by signing an executive order separating the juvenile system from the adult corrections system and bringing in consultants from the Casey Foundation and from the highly successful Missouri juvenile system. "Juvenile justice has a new face in Louisiana," she declared, "and a strong advocate in the governor's office."

"We have a duty to the children," said Blanco in an interview, explaining why she had kept her eye on the state's juvenile recidivism even while she was lieutenant governor. In Louisiana, the governor and the lieutenant governor are elected separately, and at the time, Blanco, a Democrat, sat underneath a Republican governor. Her power to act was thus fairly limited, but she did have access to data and expert personnel, and so she simply gathered information and waited until she could follow through.

This was not a new interest. In prior years, Blanco had served in the state Legislature and had toured juvenile lockups during that time. "I remember the first time I entered the local detention center," she says. "It felt rough to me, and I was going in there as an adult." She resolved to change that.

Mark Steward, now one of Governor Blanco's key advisers on reform, sees a strong link between Blanco's interest in juvenile justice and her sense of compassion and understanding of loss. (In 1997, her youngest son, Ben, then 19, was crushed beneath a weight from an industrial crane and died instantly.) When asked about it, Blanco gets quiet for a moment. "You can lose children in a number of different ways," she says. "Some die, some are lost to the streets, and others are lost to the state's prison system. And families really suffer, no matter how their kids are lost."

This summer, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected Louisiana as one of three states to participate in its program "Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice." With the grant comes more outside expertise and up to $1.5 million annually for the next five years. Steward believes that Blanco's staunch support of the issue is responsible not only for the MacArthur Foundation award but for the momentum of reform in general. "To change one of the worst juvenile systems in the nation, you have to have the leadership at the top and all the way down," he explains.

Blanco, in turn, praises Steward, her advisers from the Casey Foundation, and Simon Gonsoulin, head of the Office of Youth Development, which runs the state's juvenile system. "Right now, Louisiana has the best minds in the country working on this issue," she says.

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The recent history of juvenile-justice reform in Louisiana begins with the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, by common agreement one of the most notorious children's prisons in America. Tallulah opened in 1994, on the edge of a sleepy northeastern Louisiana delta town.

Before 16-year-old Christopher Simms was sent there in the summer of 2002, neighborhood friends in New Orleans warned him: He'd be raped for sure, he was told, unless he fought his way to respect. "So I wouldn't back down," says Simms. "If you show a sign of weakness, they are going to take advantage of that. You'll be a punk." Fellow New Orleans inmates taught him other essential skills: how to blackmail officers, have sex with young female guards, and keep a hidden stash of Camel straights in a world where half a cigarette was worth four bars of soap or four bags of potato chips.

Even the guards scrapped, says Simms: "Any time a guard can come out of his uniform and fight, we loved that. We respected that." Other times guards put a "hit" on a kid and paid the aggressor in cigarettes, lighters, fast food, or weed. Once, during a suspected hit, 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 recalls. "I blacked out."

Tallulah was "cutthroat," concludes Simms, who was released in 2003. "That's why the kids called it Little Angola." Cecile Guin, who directs social-service research at Louisiana State University, was the first person to study recidivism within the state's juvenile population. Because Tallulah was so violent, she says, many of its inmates left to commit worse crimes and wound up in adult prisons, like the state's infamous prison farm at Angola. While the state's official statistics show that 45 percent of its released juveniles are re-convicted within five years, Guin estimates that statistics for Tallulah alone would be much more grim -- more in the 90-percent range, she says.

For a decade, says juvenile-justice reformer and state Senator Donald Cravins, a Democrat from the Lafayette area, "Nothing stood out clearer than the atrocities at the facility in Tallulah." Not that the state's other juvenile prisons weren't awful. Mark Soler, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Youth Law Center, recalls touring them in the late 1990s. "Conditions in Louisiana's facilities were really horrible, as bad as any I've seen in 27 years of looking at juvenile facilities," he says.

"In this state," says defense attorney Tom Lorenzi, "when you get involved in a capital case, your client has almost always been through Louisiana's juvenile-prison system." Still, he can't recall one defendant helped by that system. "It made their lives living hells," he says. "They were brutalized and brutalized and brutalized." Seeing this, in case after case, motivated Lorenzi to work for juvenile-system reform as president of the board for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). It's no coincidence, he says, that the JJPL's founders -- Shannon Wight, Gabriella Celeste, and David Utter -- all did death-penalty work before forming the group in 1997.

Utter made his first trip to Tallulah in April 1998. As a defense attorney and as a prisons litigator for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, he had toured bleak prisons and jails for years. But, he says, "I had never seen anything like this. It had never occurred to me that we would see young people treated this way. The most shocking thing was the black eyes, broken jaws, hands in casts, bruises, and cuts. On some trips, half of my clients would be injured."

Within a few months, the JJPL filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of 12 youths imprisoned in Tallulah. The U.S. Department of Justice also brought suit under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, making Louisiana the first state it had sued over conditions in juvenile facilities. Around the same time, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield visited and wrote a front-page story referring to Tallulah as a place "so rife with brutality that many legal experts say it is the worst in the nation."

Still, Tallulah remained open for six more years. But in June 2004, parents, former Tallulah inmates, and key legislators celebrated its last day. Reform leaders made speeches and sang hymns on a lawn across the street from the facility, which provided a backdrop of gleaming razor wire. There, the townspeople of Tallulah unveiled a model of the learning center they'd been working toward for more than a year, which they hope to build on the prison's grounds. If they succeed, it will be the first prison in the United States replaced by a school.

"It was one of the greatest moments of my life," says Cravins, the state senator. "To me, it symbolized that our state was closing an ugly chapter in its history."

* * *

One morning in early June, Robin Brunker pulled on a red T-shirt bearing a logo for FFLIC (Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children) and joined a caravan of other red-shirted parents, grandparents, and children headed toward Louisiana's Capitol in Baton Rouge. There, they testified on behalf of a state Senate bill that they had dubbed one of two "Bring Our Children Home Acts of 2005." The proposed statutes would have closed the state's two large correctional-style facilities for juveniles and shifted their funding to community-based programs.

Brunker told state senators how her 17-year-old son had lost four of his teeth after a guard at the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth in northern Louisiana shoved him into a locker room with another kid and then stood outside the door. Other FFLIC members testified about brutal rapes, attacks, and suicide attempts, all at the two big facilities, all within the previous several months. The bill failed to make it out of committee.

In May, the JJPL had issued a report showing that the facilities' violence was on the rise. At Swanson, the group's monitors found that, on average, two young men per day were hurt due to self-inflicted injuries, fights, and assaults. As a result, some juvenile judges are reluctant to order incarceration. But often there are few alternatives. "Judges' hands are tied," says Utter. "If they have a kid who's a threat to public safety, the only place they can put him is going to hurt him more than help."

Agreed, says Simon Gonsoulin. A former special-education teacher and high-school principal, Gonsoulin landed his first job in the juvenile system courtesy of a federal settlement agreement (he oversaw the state's compliance with the education portion of that agreement). Since taking this job in early 2004, he has met with judges on a regular basis and has heard their concerns -- the same ones that Utter voices -- "constantly and continuously." Gonsoulin promises that many of these issues will be addressed in the Office of Youth Development's five-year strategic plan, which is currently in an information-gathering stage. For most of the summer, Gonsoulin and other juvenile-system administrators have been driving around the state, asking audiences gathered in school gyms and city halls for input on that plan, which will be finalized in October.

In the meantime, the department is addressing concerns one by one through its new family ombudsman, Prince Gray, who was hired in mid-June and immediately given an 800 number of his own. "We want parents and family members to know that their voices are being heard, and we want to make it easier for them to communicate with us," says Gonsoulin.

So far, Gray, a former principal at schools for at-risk kids, has devoted time to every complaint lodged by family or youth. He has, for instance, investigated a few accusations about "children treated roughly" and has ironed out smaller disputes between staff and youth. FFLIC members also met with Gray about a list of specific reforms, including a less stringent visiting-day dress code that won't bar parents from seeing their children if mothers are wearing, for instance, open-toed shoes or sleeveless blouses. Gray says that he found that request and others "reasonable," and that he is currently working to change department policy.

* * *

More than anything else, says Mark Steward, the success of this reform depends on well-trained personnel. He appreciates all the nice furnishings -- the carpet, the wooden furniture, the curtains, and the pillows -- that are rejuvenating the new dorms at Bridge City. But day-to-day decisions will be the real test, he says, "Because a pillow with a mean staff is going to be a weapon."

This past summer, Bridge City's staff went through intensive "human-dignity training." Coaches imported from Missouri spent time at the facility, Steward says, observing staff members at work and asking key questions -- questions such as: "Why did you do that? How could you have handled it differently? Was that treating with dignity and respect or was that punitive?" The intensive work continues until one group is fully trained, because only then can the pilot program expand "group by group by group," says Steward, who learned by trial and error that retraining an entire campus at once doesn't work.

Bridge City was always slotted as the first pilot. But at first, Gonsoulin had talked about closing the two big facilities, Swanson and the Jetson Center for Youth near Baton Rouge, which currently house about 175 kids apiece. Somehow, that plan changed. This summer, Gonsoulin announced that Swanson and Jetson would stay open but be "transformed."

To advocates, that decision defied the tenets of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, flew in the face of the JJPL's violence tallies, and deviated from the well-documented Missouri model, which relies upon many small-scale, regional facilities. "Big facilities are inherently dangerous and are going to lead to abuses and cannot possibly provide an appropriate atmosphere for children who are locked up," says the Youth Law Center's Mark Soler. The state plans to divide each facility into a day-treatment area and groupings of small cottages, but that won't change a big prison's essential nature, he says. "You can dress it up and put nice paint on it and make it look a little bit different," says Soler. "But a pig is a pig is a pig."

State Senator Cravins says that, without a doubt, he would like to see reform move at a faster pace. But Cravins, the man who for a decade has been the chief legislative critic of Louisiana's juvenile system, confesses that he now finds himself "somewhat optimistic." That's largely because he trusts the people who head up the state's efforts. He calls Gonsoulin "a good guy" and says he has "a tremendous amount of confidence in" Steward.

Steward is also hopeful, although he admits that revamping the two big juvenile prisons is not ideal, especially because those facilities' histories include what he calls "decades of punitive, horrible treatment." But decisions have to be made, he says. "There's the perfect world and there's the realistic world," he explains, "and Louisiana has to figure out what it can afford, how small it can go, and how and when it will regionalize." Transitional steps -- like utilizing the facilities at hand -- are necessary when revamping a system this large. "You cannot flip a switch," says Steward. "It cannot happen overnight." tap

Katy Reckdahl is a news reporter for the New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit. She has been writing about Louisiana's juvenile-justice system since 2001.