After violent attacks, Louisiana considers reversing juvenile justice approach focused on therapy
This story was first published by the Louisiana Illuminator. You can read the original coverage here.
Michele Piazza’s face swelled up with bruises. Her leg was broken in more than one place. She was beaten so severely that a year after the attack on her, she continues to have physical and mental health challenges.
Piazza has worked in prisons and secure care facilities for 18 years. She never got so much as a scratch on her when she was a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, one of the country’s largest maximum security prisons.
Then, she went to work for the Office of Juvenile Justice two years ago. The assault on her occurred about a year into her job at the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie, one of Louisiana’s six secure care facilities for youth convicted of crimes.
Teenagers decided to break out of the facility one night in April 2021. When Piazza tried to restrain one of them, he shattered her leg, she said. The violence didn’t stop there.
“When I blacked out from that pain was when he decided to continuously kick and stomp my head and face to try to gain access to the exterior of the facility – to escape,” she told Louisiana senators last week. “His words were that if they didn’t let him out, he would kill me.”
Her attacker was a 14-year-old who was trying to escape with an 18-year-old resident.
Piazza managed to drag herself to safety, but there weren’t enough staff at the facility to assist her. The Office of Juvenile Justice has over 300 vacancies, and it always had a hard time recruiting new workers to its positions, which have a reputation for being difficult and dangerous.
“It’s a scary feeling when you call for all available units and you’re the only available unit,” she said. “Nobody is coming.”
Piazza’s brutal assault is not an isolated incident, and the violence isn’t confined to the Acadiana Center for Youth. Former residents, child advocates and OJJ employees have described several of the secure care facilities for juveniles as chaotic over the past year.
One mother told lawmakers her son with disabilities was beaten in the face with a battery pack by other teenage residents while in secure care. In a separate incident, a group of teens at Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish gave a guard a concussion earlier this year before they stuffed the guard into a closet.
A young adult previously held at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe said guards at that facility forced teenage residents into rooms with human feces smeared on the walls. Teenagers were also kept in solitary confinement with no educational opportunities at the newest state juvenile facility in St. Martinville, according to an investigation from NBC News, ProPublica and The Marshall Project.
“From 1 to 5 a.m. each night, I don’t think any of us sleep because we’re waiting for the phone to ring,” said William Sommers, a deputy secretary in the Department of Public Safety and Corrections who oversees the state’s juvenile justice services. “It seems like one issue after another.”
A new approach
Under pressure from lawmakers, Sommers, who took over the juvenile justice system 19 months ago, put together a plan that he says will increase safety in the state’s secure care centers.
His strategy largely focuses on changing the physical makeup of the facilities, reconfiguring the layout of living quarters and fortifying structures to more closely resemble adult correctional facilities. Significant changes to the programming or rehabilitative services have not been included in the plan that Sommers has described publicly.
“We have been hampered by facilities that are not up to date,” Sommers said at the start of a presentation to senators last week.
Sommers has reworked renovation plans for the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe as part of the larger overhaul. Instead of retaining dormitory-style living areas as originally planned, the renovation will include 72 individual rooms for residents when finished early next year.
The walls will also be raised, the windows will be reinforced and ceilings will be sealed so young residents can’t crawl into the attic, he said.
Sommers also asked lawmakers to prioritize a renovation project for the Bridge City Center, expected to cost $16 million to $18 million, and he wants to reopen the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, which was closed to incarcerated youth in 2014. It most recently housed adult women prisoners after their compound was destroyed in the 2016 Baton Rouge area flood.
Under Sommers’ plan, Jetson would temporarily house young people new to the juvenile justice system so they could go through an initial mental and physical health evaluation as well as a risk assessment. They would then be transferred to a permanent secure care facility best aligned with their risk, Sommers said last week.
Incarcerated young people would be classified as either a high-, medium- or low-security concern, according to Sommers. As a general rule, Swanson in Monroe would be used for residents who need more security, and Acadiana in Bunkie would be considered a medium- and low-security facility. Bridge City would eventually become a facility where young people at the end of their sentence would go for reentry services to help with their release, Sommers said.
Classifying underage offenders by their security status requires legislation. Senate Bill 323, by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, was approved Monday in the Senate and now heads to the House for consideration.
The approach is similar to what exists in Louisiana’s adult prison system.
In Louisiana, incarcerated adults are temporarily housed at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel while they are assessed for physical, mental and educational challenges. Once that assessment is concluded, they are sent to their permanent placement, which is supposed to be a facility with programs best suited to their needs. The Department of Corrections also likes to transfer adults who are close to release to the Plaquemines Parish jail near New Orleans for reentry services, just as Sommers has proposed for the juvenile justice system at Bridge City.
The old model
While similar to the program in place at adult prisons, the plan laid out by Sommers is a departure from a nationally recognized therapeutic form of care leaders in the juvenile justice system had said they hoped to follow.
In 2003, Louisiana lawmakers passed legislation that was supposed to implement the well-known “Missouri model” of juvenile justice, which emphasizes holding incarcerated youth closer to their homes in smaller facilities with less security and a focus on rehabilitation.
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal even hired Missouri’s retired director of youth services to consult with Louisiana on juvenile justice issues. He also shuttered Jetson, in part because the facility was considered inadequate for the state’s new approach.
Still, Louisiana never made the investment into juvenile justice services needed to fully adopt the Missouri model. Hurricane Katrina derailed initial plans to get the new model up and running, and a few years later Jindal ended up slashing the juvenile justice office’s funding when Louisiana faced continuous budget shortfalls.
Sommers’ plan would dismantle some of what remains of those Missouri model policies that did go into effect.
For example, Louisiana law requires incarcerated youth to be placed in facilities close to their homes to allow for frequent visits from their families. Under the new plan, Sommers would be able to place young people primarily based on their assessed security risk, even if it puts them in a facility hours away from family members.
Sommers said moving the young people farther away from their home likely wouldn’t have a dramatic impact because so few incarcerated youth have visitors. He told senators last week that less than 20% of the people at state juvenile facilities have loved ones come see them at all.
But perhaps nothing reveals the swift change in Louisiana’s juvenile justice philosophy more than the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie.
Opened in 2019, the $21 million correctional facility and the first constructed specifically to accommodate the Missouri model of care. It was intentionally built with dormitory-style housing and fewer security measures. On the Office of Juvenile Justice’s website, the center is described as “a state-of-the-art secure treatment center for youth.”
Yet last week, Sommers characterized the Acadiana Center as suffering from a “bad design” that has made it unsafe for children and staff. He specifically said the dormitory living, a hallmark of the Missouri model, had made it difficult for guards to control the residents and contributed to attacks like the one on Piazza.
“Each facility that we have currently are dormitory styles,” Sommers said. “I just do not feel like the dormitory styles are effective in what we are trying to accomplish.”
Cloud, the senator whose district encompasses the facility, agreed.
“The original model, the Missouri model, that was a therapeutic approach. It’s just not working,” she told her colleagues last week. “It’s just not working.”
One trigger for changes in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system was a riot at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe last May, which Sommers described as a “full-scale melee.”
Before escaping, incarcerated teenagers smashed glass windows, tore up ceilings, destroyed furniture and busted holes in concrete walls. One also hit OJJ regional director Orlando Davis over the head with a pipe during the breakout. The assault left Davis with a concussion and he needed staples to close the gash in his head.
“Our staff, they have families that they have to return to at the end of the shift,” said Davis, who has worked in juvenile justice for 30 years. “If we don’t have staff that feel safe, youth don’t feel safe. Our staff and youth need to feel safe.”
In response, Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, has introduced a constitutional amendment through Senate Bill 234, which would allow district attorneys to try juveniles as adults if they were convicted of assaulting a staff member in a correctional facility.
The legislation needs a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and the approval of voters statewide to go into effect. It cleared a committee but hasn’t gone before the full Senate yet.
The property damage to the Swanson center from the riot was so severe that a wing of the facility remains closed. The young people who instigated the riot were initially moved to Ware Youth Center in Coushatta, where they also destroyed property, and then eventually to the Acadiana Center for Youth’s new satellite campus in St. Martinville.
The transfer, however, did not stop the destruction or violence. The youth at St. Martinville damaged that facility and beat up at least one staff member. The facility has come under scrutiny from child welfare advocates who say that minors were shackled, kept in solitary confinement and not given educational opportunities or therapy while staying there.
Rachel Gassert, with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said these young people – and others in juvenile justice facilities – have attacked staff and destroyed property because they don’t feel safe and aren’t getting the support and services they need.
“I am extremely concerned about what is happening in our facilities. The injuries to staff are horrific and the injuries to youth are horrific,” she said. “It’s just a vicious cycle where no one feels safe in the facilities, and that is where we are, and it is not good.”
Gassert said a “glaring hole” in the Sommers’ plan is the lack of adjustments to programming, educational and mental health services for incarcerated youth. She had hoped the state would bring in national juvenile justice experts to help with what she sees as a crisis at secure care facilities.
“Individual rooms are not the panacea,” Gassert said. “It’s about the environment in the facility. It’s about the culture. … I’m not convinced that this plan is going to result in safer facilities.”
Gassert and other child welfare advocates are instead pushing House Bill 746, from Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans. It would limit the use of solitary confinement in state juvenile justice facilities to eight hours a day.
State law currently does not limit the use of solitary confinement in state juvenile justice centers, and the Office of Juvenile Justice adjusted its internal confinement policy in August 2020. The agency increased the amount of time it allowed its residents to be placed in confinement by staff from a maximum of eight hours to a maximum of seven days. Even with that increase, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that a third of the youth confined alone in 2019 and 2020 were held there for longer than the current seven-day maximum.
Sommers, in a letter to the auditor, said the Office of Juvenile Justice was using solitary confinement more often because the secure care facilities had become “more violent” in recent years. He told lawmakers individual rooms at the Swanson Center in Monroe might help lessen the state’s reliance on solitary confinement.
Some legislators also think the Office of Juvenile Justice needs more money for operations.
“From everything I hear, you all are in crisis,” said Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner. “I do think it is in large part a funding issue.”