Judge orders two youths removed from ‘unsafe,’ violent Bridge City detention center _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--The Bridge City Correctional Center in Westwego, La. is seen Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.

The revolving door of leadership has turned again at a scandal-prone juvenile detention center in Jefferson Parish, as state officials for the second time this year have ousted the director of the Bridge City Center for Youth.

Basil C. Richards, a corrections veteran and rising star with the Office of Juvenile Justice, was asked to resign Friday, just eight months after he took the reins at what he described as “an incredibly troubled facility.”

State officials refused to discuss Richards’ departure, which came less than a week after the unexplained death of a 31-year-old guard who collapsed at the facility while supervising a dorm of juveniles. The employee, Myesha Webb, was pronounced dead at an area hospital Nov. 29.

Richards, in a telephone interview Monday, said he was still trying to come to terms with what he described as his “forced resignation.” He said he had been offered no explanation for the personnel change after receiving mostly positive feedback during his brief tenure.

“I asked them why and they just said, ‘You’re not the right fit,’ ” said Richards, a doctoral student who has worked in corrections since 1989. “There’s certainly change needed at this facility, and I hope I can come back at some point and be a part of that change. It’s an incredibly broken system.”

The Office of Juvenile Justice, in response to repeated inquiries Monday, would not say whether Richards voluntarily resigned, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.

Beth Touchet-Morgan, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary, insisted that the move had “nothing to do with the death of Myesha Webb.” She said Webb’s death was not related to any “incidents” involving the juveniles under her watch but added that officials nevertheless asked the State Police to investigate.

Lt. J.B. Slaton, a State Police spokesman, said authorities have no reason to suspect foul play in Webb’s death but noted that the probe remains ongoing. The Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office has not determined the cause or manner of the woman’s death and is still awaiting toxicology results.

Webb had been employed at the facility for only a few months. “It was totally unexpected,” Touchet-Morgan said of her death. “It was a shock to all of us.”

A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said Webb’s death highlighted recurring staffing shortages at Bridge City, adding that the facility’s control center had not realized Webb had become stricken until some of the youth residents began playing with her communications radio.

Similar concerns surfaced over the summer after a group of teens overpowered a guard and swiped his keys — an assault that allowed two teens to escape from the facility. They were later caught.

Touchet-Morgan disputed the anonymous source’s account, saying Webb had not been the only guard supervising the dorm and that the youths quickly went to the woman’s aid.

Michelle Thomas, a regional director at the Office of Juvenile Justice, has taken over as interim director at Bridge City while officials search for Richards’ replacement.

The leadership change comes at a time of uncertainty for the agency and its deputy secretary, Dr. Mary Livers, a Gov. Bobby Jindal appointee who has endured her share of criticism in recent years. It’s unclear whether Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards intends to retain Livers.

Richards, a native of the Virgin Islands, worked in corrections in California and later returned home to run a long-beleaguered prison in St. Croix that has been under a federal consent decree since 1986, according to the St. Thomas Source, a local newspaper.

In Louisiana, Richards served as deputy director of the state juvenile facility in Monroe before being promoted in April to the Bridge City post. “They asked me to come down here, and I did so,” he said.

By all accounts, Richards had his work cut out for him. His predecessor, Angela Sutton, was accused of mismanaging the facility and allowing staff turnover to skyrocket.

Officials faulted Sutton for improperly hiring several guards with criminal histories, including Gary François, a man later charged with murder in a shooting last Christmas Eve at the Oakwood Center shopping mall in Terrytown.

They also called into question her handling of a scandal in which a female guard was caught having sex with a 17-year-old male inmate in the detention center’s laundry room — a tryst that led to criminal charges.

Richards said his ousting is all the more baffling in light of his “impeccable record.”

“I came down here, did a great job and got praised,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time.”

Richards said he hopes to return to Bridge City at some point, noting there is much work to be done.

“There are some changes that need to come with this outgoing administration, and I want to be a catalyst,” he said. “It can’t be left the way it is.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.