Broken: A look at violence inside the Bridge City Center for Youth

Published: Feb. 5, 2020 at 9:50 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 5, 2020 at 11:42 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - “I begged the judge not to send him there,” Nicole Hingle said.

77 male inmates are housed at the Bridge City Center for Youth.

“I’m hearing a lot about the very high rate of violence that’s happening in the facility,” Wendy Matherne said.

It’s one of 4 state-run facilities for boys and young men between 13 to 20 years old. Parents fear for their son’s safety.

“My son was knocked unconscious and kicked in the head,” Hingle said

“It’s an extremely scary situation,” Matherne said.

Wendy Matherne is an advocate for criminal justice reform.

“If you’re targeted and don’t fight back, you just become an easier target and the violence just continues to perpetuate,” Matherne said.

“Kids do fight. We do have fights here and things do get violent,” Dr. James Busch said.

Dr. James Busch is the Deputy Secretary of Juvenile Justice for Louisiana. He says youth offenders fight each other and staff, and he admits sometimes they’re badly hurt.

“90 percent or somewhere around 92 percent of the kids in this facility are here for violent behavior. The screening risk showed that they have a risk of future violent behavior, so to think that the kids come in here and not continue to behave in a way they’ve behaved their whole life, because violence is the way they solve their problems on the street, and that’s how they solve their problems in this facility,” Dr. Busch said.

Busch says when violence breaks out, staff members quickly react.

“The staff and dorm break up the fights. Our investigative staff who work with various police departments because that’s one of the requirements of this position is that you have previous investigatory type experience, but they will investigate and they have the power to arrest,” Dr. Busch said.

So, if a fight breaks out, the facility doesn’t, the facility doesn’t call the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office, instead the in-house investigative unit handles the case and makes arrests if necessary. Staff members have to break up the fight but get this, those staff members are mostly women.

Busch admits that’s an issue, but says it’s mostly women applying for the job.

“There’s searches and restraints and different things that have to be done in the dorm, especially if there’s a fight or somebody who needs to be redirected, it might be difficult for a female to do those kinds of things,” says Dr. Busch.

“It’s is a very intensive, stressful job. It’s very dangerous and when you look at who’s doing the job, primarily women, they earn a very low wage,” says Matherne.

Busch says the female staff members can act as motherly figures, but in general, they don’t stay around long.

The turnover rate at Bridge City is 60 to 70 percent. The national average is 16 percent. Most employees have less than two years on the job.

“You know it takes a certain kind of personality, and you have to want to work with kids in this facility, and it’s a challenging job. People get here and realize it’s not for them,” Dr. Busch said.

FOX 8 obtained two years of grievances or complaints from the offenders at Bridge City. Some are minor, from not getting pizza while others were allowed to eat it, and some contain allegations of sexual assault like a 2018 complaint where a juvenile says a female guard talked sexually to him and looked at him in the restroom.

The sexual assault allegations were turned over to the facility’s investigative unit. Other grievances included physical abuse allegations.

One says, “I was assaulted with a key by a guard causing multiple open wounds. She proceeded to hit and choke me. I was in fear for my life.”

That 2018 case was also turned over to the in-house investigators.

“That would be considered child abuse in any other setting. That would be considered child abuse. It would emotional abuse. It would be physical abuse,” Matherne said.

We do not know the outcome of any of the internal investigations.

“A lot of times they can talk to the kids, and they can talk to the staff. We can remedy the situation fairly quickly,” Dr. Busch said.

When grievances don’t rise to the level of an investigation, the facility has a grievance coordinator to handle complaints.

“They are going to be re-entering our community and re-entering the neighborhood they’ve come from. Are we really investing in that return?” Matherne said.

“You know, 70 percent of the kids that leave here don’t come back into the system, and that’s a big thing to say when you look at what type of kids we get into our system so, if I was a parent, I too would be concerned about the safety of my child,” Dr. Busch said.

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