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Louisiana Abandons Private Juvenile Prisons

The state of Louisiana agreed to a settlement in federal court September 7, 2000 designed to radically alter the way it operates its juvenile prisons. The agreement was intended to settle several lawsuits against the state, including one by the U.S. Dept. of Justice, which charged that teenage detainees were routinely brutalized by guards and deprived of food, clothing and medical care.

Former mayor of Houston, Fred Hofheinz, faces charges of conspiracy, extortion and bribery... Brown is alleged to have funneled $845,000 from Hofheinz to Gov. Edwards to serve the lucrative contract.

The settlement agreement effectively ends Louisiana's experiment with privately run juvenile prisons, where the worst abuses had occurred. The state had tried to privatize its juvenile lockups to cut costs, but the effort raised questions about whether for-profit corporations could operate prisons more efficiently than the government without skimping on essential services and training. Richard Sthadler, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the state had been forced to expand juvenile prisons but that its "efforts to provide some of these services through privately operated facilities were a disappointment."

Under the settlement, the state is prohibited from placing any more juveniles in a prison at Jena, operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. Wackenhut abandoned the Jena contract last spring after a juvenile court judge in New Orleans and investigators hired by the Justice Department found that youthful prisoners there had been deprived of underwear, sweaters, blankets and food and that prisoners were routinely beaten by guards. After returning the Jena juveniles to state-run facilities, Wackenhut said it would convert the facility to an adult prison. However, seven months later, the building remains empty and unused.

The state also agreed to stop doing business with a private company operated by friends of former Governor Edwin W. Edwards, which owned a juvenile prison at Tallulah. The state seized control of the Tallulah prison in 1999 after reports surfaced of widespread abuse, corruption and mis-management of the facility.

Mr. Edwards was convicted last May of bribery involving the award of a riverboat casino license. Now one of his friends and business associates, Cecil Brown, along with the former mayor of Houston, Fred Hofheinz, faces charges of conspiracy, extortion and bribery in trying to obtain a for-profit juvenile prison contract. Brown is alleged to have of funneled $845,000 from Hofheinz to Edwards to secure the lucrative contract.

The settlement does more than eliminate for-profit juvenile facilities. It is also aimed at improving conditions at the state-run juvenile facilities, which were only marginally better than the for-profit prisons. Bill Lann Lee, the DOJ civil rights chief attorney, said the agreement "does not mean [that] everything will be magically solved." Nevertheless, Mr. Lee told the New York Times, "It does mean that there are now over 100 pages of detailed obligations and responsibilities that the State of Louisiana has agreed to, with timetables and mechanisms to make sure they are taken care of."

The settlement gives responsibility for medical treatment of state juvenile detainees to Louisiana State University. Under the agreement, doctors from the university's School of Medicine will provide medical, mental health and dental care at the state's five juvenile prisons. Staffs from the university are also slated to train guards in an effort to lessen the amount of physical force that has been used, Mr. Lee said.

Independent monitors will have a right to inspect the state's juvenile facilities, and if problems continue, the agreement allows the Justice Department and others to file motions to reopen their lawsuits with Judge Frank J. Polozola of the Federal District Court in Baton Rouge.

Source: New York Times

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