A year ago, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution asking the city administration and Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the city’s jail, to take “any and all necessary steps” to remove all juveniles from the jail and house them at the city-run Youth Study Center instead.
Many juveniles have since been moved from the jail, where advocates say they were at best ignored and at worst brutalized.
But there’s not enough space at the Youth Study Center for all the jailed juveniles, and discussions about constructing a building on the center’s Gentilly grounds have stalled until the debate about whether to build the jail’s so-called Phase III is resolved.
Although Gusman maintains that he is obligated by law to hold whoever is sent to him by the courts because they are facing adult charges, regardless of their age, juveniles do play a role in his proposed expansion plans.
Gusman has said he would like to use $54 million in available FEMA funds to construct a new phase of the jail complex that could house 750 more inmates — including a special area for juveniles 17 and younger.
But it seems that moving juveniles out of prison conditions is a key issue for city officials and analysts.
Last week, for example, the youths merited a mention in an analysis by the city’s Special Jail Populations Working Group. “The Phase III proposal envisions the continued housing of juveniles in an adult facility indefinitely — an unacceptable solution,” the report concluded.
On Wednesday, city Capital Projects Director Vincent Smith presented a 2016 budget that included an additional $7 million to expand the Youth Study Center from 40 beds to 65. If FEMA money is available, that would be used, city spokeswoman Sarah McLaughlin said.
Also Wednesday, Councilwoman Susan Guidry told a group of juvenile advocates gathered on City Hall’s steps that the city would do well to put some of the FEMA money toward a new building on the Youth Study Center site to accommodate juveniles who remain in the jail because of lack of space in the center.
“But the sheriff wants to use that money to build a bigger jail,” Guidry said.
Her perspective was echoed by Council President Jason Williams, who said that moving all juveniles out of the jail is “a no-brainer.” Williams, noting that the old jail was considered one of the most dangerous in the nation even for adults, said teenagers held in those conditions became hardened and violent — not rehabilitated.
“I reject the proposition that you can toss a 16-year-old into a gladiator pit and not create a gladiator,” Williams said.
At the rally, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights presented Guidry and Williams with a petition with 1,700 signatures demanding that all youths be removed from the adult jail. All seven council members then signed the petition.
The sheriff released a statement Wednesday noting that the jail now has 25 inmates under the age of 18, with no further breakdown.
A few weeks ago, though, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Philip Stelly gave a breakdown. Of 21 juvenile inmates held at that time, 20 were male and one was female, he said. The young men were held in a 60-bed pod that is completely separate from adults, Stelly said. No adults can be held in that pod with them because placing adults and juveniles together would violate the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
At the time, the jail’s lone juvenile female, a 17-year-old, was being held in the Temporary Detention Center “segregated from the rest of the (adult) females,” Stelly said, though he would give no further specifics about her accommodations.
Both the federal law and the jail’s federal consent decree require that all inmates under 18 are to be housed separately from adults. Despite that, the sheriff said in his Wednesday release that they could legally be placed in the jail’s general population, but that he “has created a special classification for youth offenders in order to keep them segregated.”
Extensive research shows that juveniles face high levels of assault and other abuse when incarcerated with adults. In fact, the consent decree was rendered because of a lawsuit brought against the jail that began with a complaint filed by three youths housed at Orleans Parish Prison.
The new jail allows the sheriff to better separate juvenile prisoners from adults, which was largely impossible in the former antiquated jail. But the group of advocates on City Hall’s steps Wednesday insisted that is not enough.
Shana Sears told the group she saw an almost overnight change in her teenage son when he was transferred to OPP as he awaited trial in “adult court” on an armed robbery charge.
Though her son, a small, bookish child with glasses, was 15, his childhood ended soon after he set foot in one of the nation’s most infamous jails, she said. “He immediately became an adult,” she said.
She didn’t believe that the new, tougher child she saw was putting on a tough face to match his atmosphere. “It wasn’t a mask,” she said. “He changed. He literally had to be that way. He had no choice.”
Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said she also saw a change in him, as she sees with every juvenile kept in the jail. “They have to adapt to survive,” she said.
Schwartzmann sees the complexities of incarcerated teens, who may be on the brink of adulthood but are still children.
She recalled how one day a young inmate asked her to bring him two books: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Superfudge,” by Judy Blume.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “Here was a 15-year-old kid in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, talking to me from behind glass, asking for a Judy Blume book.”