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 prevalence of violence has increased inside Louisiana's juvenile prisons in recent years, even as the number of teens behind bars has fallen. And staffing shortages have become so chronic that the state has run afoul of federal laws intended to protect youths serving time in so-called secure care facilities.        

The state Legislative Auditor's Office outlined those findings and others in a new report that also faults the state's monitoring of girls housed at a privately-run youth lockup in Red River Parish. 

The audit was released days after four teens escaped from the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe — a facility that has been beset by jailbreaks and staff turnover.   

The legislative auditor, Daryl Purpera, said in a statement that the state Office of Juvenile Justice "needs to strengthen oversight of secure care facilities" and redouble its efforts to keep employees and teens safe. 

But that could prove even more challenging if lawmakers continue slashing the agency's budget, James Bueche, the head of OJJ, said in an interview.  

OJJ agreed with the audit's findings and has made changes to make better use of limited resources, Bueche said, including new data collection methods and allowing more guards to work overtime at understaffed facilities.

But funding remains so scarce that the agency has been unable to open a brand-new, 72-bed youth prison that is sitting vacant in Avoyelles Parish. The most recent proposed budget cut — $11 million — would cause OJJ to shutter five regional offices, eliminate 114 positions and "pretty much eliminate our ability to provide probation services," Bueche said. 

"Legally, we're bound to offer probation services, but we're not going to have the staff to do it," he added. "I'm not sure what state the agency is going to be in." 

The latest proposed cuts come as the state's juvenile system prepares to absorb an influx of 17-year-old offenders who will no longer be tried as adults — the result of the 2016 "raise the age" law. 

Aside from any financial concerns, reform advocates pointed to the legislative audit as the latest sign that Louisiana's approach to juvenile justice — in particular its housing of juvenile offenders in large detention centers — is failing. 

Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said the increase in youth-on-youth assaults is not necessarily reflective of "a problem with the kids but more the way these facilities are run."

Gassert's organization has pushed the state to avoid incarcerating juveniles when possible and to place the highest-risk youngsters in smaller settings that are close to their homes. 

"I think it should be a question of how they are using the money they have," Gassert said. "Too many kids are being held in these facilities for behavior that doesn't pose a risk to public safety, and they're being held for far too long."

The legislative audit, released Monday, cites a 53 percent increase in "fights per youth" in juvenile prisons between 2013 and 2017 and a 111 percent increase in the staff's use of physical restraints during that same time period. The auditors also note an increase in the number of "frequent fighters," which "may also indicate that these youth are not receiving treatments or programs that effectively address this high-risk behavior."

The largest increase in fights — 121 percent — was recorded at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. Conditions at that lockup became so dire that one Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judge deemed the lockup "unsafe" in 2016 and ordered two youths transferred to another state facility. 

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Bueche, the OJJ director, said the state's juvenile prisons have seen more violence as the facilities are increasingly reserved for offenders who are the worst of the worst. The state now houses 276 juveniles at any given time, a number that has fallen from about 350 over the past three years, said Beth Touchet-Morgan, OJJ's deputy assistant secretary.

"What we have now in our facilities are kids that are high risk to commit violent behavior," Bueche said. "We have fewer kids but ones with a higher propensity of violence." 

The Bridge City facility also was found to have the highest staff turnover rate — 62.3 percent — of the state's three juvenile prisons, a revolving door that has resulted in inexperienced staff who are often ineffective in managing youth and preventing violence. The lockup became so out of control a couple years ago that teens were overpowering guards and accessing the roof of the facility for hours at a time. 

The auditors found that staffing levels at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and the nearby Swanson Center for Youth at Columbia were frequently out of compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 law that requires a 1 to 8 staff to youth ratio during waking hours and a 1 to 16 staff to youth ratio during sleeping hours. The auditors found that the Bridge City facility, meanwhile, "does not collect enough information to accurately determine compliance with PREA staffing ratios and may be calculating staffing ratios incorrectly."

"High staff turnover and high numbers of staff not reporting to work contribute to facilities not meeting PREA staffing ratios," the auditors wrote. 

Louisiana juvenile prison director resigns in wake of escaped teens in Monroe

The auditors also criticized the state's monitoring of up to two dozen female youth at the privately run Ware Youth Center in Coushatta. The audit found that OJJ, which contracts with the facility, "does not monitor medical care, room confinement, restraints or grievances at Ware."

It added that the facility retains video surveillance footage only for a week, "which makes it difficult to monitor what actually takes place at the facility." 

Bueche contends that Ware is a "well run facility," and that any irregularities the auditors found were isolated incidents. 

He said it would be difficult to monitor the girls there to the same degree as their male counterparts in state juvenile prisons without renegotiating the terms of the contract — or, in other words, coming up with more money. 

"I don't think it's correct to say we don't monitor them at all," Bueche said. The state legislative auditor "would like us to do a different type of monitoring."

The audit also found that OJJ has seen an increase in the number of positive drug screens among youth offenders since 2013 but that the agency failed to collect enough data to determine whether that jump was caused by an increase in drugs being smuggled into the facility or teens using drugs during furloughs. 

The agency began collecting data last month and said it will begin reviewing it in monthly meetings.

The legislative audit is intended to help a state task force develop standards for juvenile prisons. A separate audit will focus on rehabilitation and treatment programs in those facilities. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.