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DOJ Sues Wackenhut Juvenile Prison

In March, 2000, six teenage boys, brutalized by guards in a Wackenhut prison in Jena, Louisiana, were removed by the judge who sentenced them.

State Judge Mark Doherty of Orleans Parish Louisiana was so appalled by their treatment that he made a special trip to the Jena facility to check on the welfare of twelve other boys he had sentenced. He eventually released five more, describing Jena as "a place that drives and treats juveniles as if they walked on all fours."

One of those released was a 17-year-old whom a guard had pinned face down on the floor. The youth had recently undergone an operation for gunshot wounds to the stomach and was wearing a colostomy bag when the guard held him to the ground by placing a knee in his back.

Judge Doherty is not the only one taking action. On March 31, 2000, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the Jena Juvenile Justice Center. It is the first time the DOJ has sued a private prison company.

In this original action, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola has been asked to add the Jena facility to a November 1998 lawsuit filed against the state of Louisiana. The lawsuit alleges inadequate care for more than 1,700 juvenile prisoners in other facilities.

The youths in Jena sometimes spent months in solitary confinement. An investigation in February, 2000, by Justice Department experts revealed that, within a two-month period, a quarter of the 276 juveniles in the Jena facility suffered some form of traumatic abuse. Many of the injuries were the result of physical abuse by guards. DOJ investigators found a disturbing shortage of necessary items like underwear, blankets, shoes, mattresses, and food.

A report by Dr. Nancy Ray cites an incident in which a shortage of food resulted in a riot as juvenile prisoners rushed a food cart.

Additionally, former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards has been implicated in a scheme in which he received $845,000 from former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz for the contract to build the Jena facility. Edwards has not been indicted for the payoffs because he was already convicted in federal court for extortion, racketeering and money-laundering in an unrelated case; making his involvement in Jena inconsequential.

Hofheinz, who won the original Jena contract, sold the rights to Wackenhut when he was unable to raise the $12 million necessary to build the prison. Wackenhut is the second largest for-profit private prison company in the U.S. with BOP contracts that include both state and federal prisons. They also have seven facilities in foreign countries.

Wackenhut maintains that, "the bottom line is that the juvenile facility at Jena is a well managed and safe facility." One young resident disagrees. After reading a Wackenhut promotional brochure he observed, "Then I figured it out. Wackenhut was using us kids to make money."

In this case the bottom line has bottomed out. On April 26th, 2000, Wackenhut gave up their contract to run the Jena facility.

Sources: Palm Beach Post, New York Times

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