A juvenile detention center in Jefferson Parish has descended into chaos in recent weeks, with fights involving entire dormitories and with teens repeatedly kicking down doors within the facility, an Orleans Parish judge was told Thursday.
Inmates increasingly have had the run of the Bridge City Center for Youth and even gained access to the roof of the building, where they roamed for hours one recent morning as a shorthanded staff struggled to regain control.
That dire picture emerged during a hearing in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court at which state officials described near-anarchic conditions as they sought to explain how a handcuffed teenager had been ambushed by seven or eight of his fellow inmates.
That teen has made repeated trips to the infirmary — where another teen remains with a broken jaw — and was ordered to be transferred to another facility following Thursday’s hearing.
“They were swinging at him,” Mark Thomas, a social services counselor at Bridge City, told Judge Mark Doherty, recalling the ambush. “I heard a lot of youths screaming.”
Thomas, who has worked at the facility for a month, said episodes of violence have escalated during his brief tenure, thanks in large part to the ability of the young inmates to break through the doors of their dormitories. “It’s been happening often,” he said.
Thomas said some parts of the facility are safe, but he said juveniles in the Justice dormitory have been repeatedly threatened and attacked by their counterparts in the Liberty and Faith dorms. Officials placed the Justice dorm on lockdown for two days this week, Thomas said, because the door was “broken three or four times” Monday. “It happened again on Tuesday,” he said.
One day last week, in an apparent protest against living conditions, juveniles from several dormitories managed to get to the roof, where they ran around and jumped “from one roof to another” from about 10 a.m. until midafternoon, Thomas said.
The youths have complained in recent weeks that they aren’t receiving sufficient food, water and hygiene products at Bridge City, one of three “secure care” facilities in Louisiana that house juvenile offenders.
On Sunday, nearly two dozen juveniles were “loose on the campus” from about 8 p.m. until about 3 a.m. the next morning, according to a state law enforcement official familiar with the situation.
“The kids are so out of control that a substantial amount of staff have already quit,” the official said, noting that authorities are investigating an incident in which an inmate recently choked a female staff member.
The staffing shortage at Bridge City has become so acute that officials are relying on the assistance of probation and parole officers to secure the facility, a development that seemed to concern Doherty.
As in years past, officials of the state Office of Juvenile Justice sought to play down the challenges at the Bridge City center, a facility that has long been plagued by rampant staff turnover and violence.
Timothy Maples, the assistant director at Bridge City, described the situation as “mild” by comparison to the dysfunction found in other correctional settings.
“You’re going to have situations that come up,” Maples told the judge. “We’re constantly improving.”
Beth Touchet-Morgan, the deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, said the agency began a review of recent incidents at Bridge City even before Thursday’s hearing. She declined to say how officials plan to address the problem of the teens breaking down doors.
Asked earlier this week about the day the inmates got to the roof, she acknowledged in an email that there had been “an incident where a few kids were considered out of area.”
“Basically, they were not in the area that they were designated to be at that time,” she wrote. “They were not assaultive and remained within the inner perimeter of the facility.”
She also denied that any part of Bridge City had been placed on lockdown, a term the agency generally avoids.
“There have been brief periods of time, on occasion, when movement may be limited in the interest of safety and security,” she added.
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