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Violence, abuse, and escapes plague the juvenile justice system in Louisiana

“The saying was ‘If they’re not a true criminal when they get here, they will be when they leave,’” a former OJJ employee says.
Published: May. 3, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - There’s violence, escapes, and reports of abuse within the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), where offenders as young as 13 are ordered to serve their time. Those with a juvenile life sentence will be in the juvenile system until the age of 21.

OJJ heads up four secured facilities throughout the state, including the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish.

“We’re dealing with kids, and it’s heartbreaking. The saying was, ‘If they’re not a true criminal when they get here, they will be when they leave,’” says a former OJJ teacher.

FOX 8 will not identify the teacher who worked as a special ed teacher at Bridge City in 2021. She says classes rarely ever started on time, and the chaos that unfolded the night before always affected her class time with the kids.

“It would be at least 12 per class, a lot of days there would be one or two that didn’t come because they were in the infirmary or we had kids on suicide watch,” says the former teacher.

She says there were times when she’d hear that the older juvenile offenders abused the youngest inmates. She says some school days would turn into a fight for survival, and the juveniles destroyed property.

“We would have the whole facility on lockdown because of gang fights. They would definitely be physically aggressive to each other, and they would tear up the school. They would knock the windows out. The doors were like paper. I’d think to myself, it’s not a secure facility,” says the former teacher.

At the Bridge City Center for Youth, nine juvenile inmates escaped in the past five months. Two of them are still on the loose.

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“As you can imagine, the situation is getting worse, not better,” says Jefferson Parish Councilman Deano Banano.

Escapes happen throughout the state’s system. Thirty-two juvenile offenders broke free from the Swanson facility in Monroe in two years.

“In words, it’s just been real hard to deal with. It’s painful,” says Lameka Smith.

At 13 years old, Lameka Smith’s son was sent to Swanson for committing sexual assault. In the seven years he was there, she claims he suffered constant abuse from both the staff and other inmates.

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“He has had bruises on his face which are visible. He was slung to the ground by guards. Choked. You name it, it’s been done to him,” says Smith.

Her son, Anfernny Thurman, now 19, received his high school diploma from Swanson. He’s now in a non-secure facility, but Smith says her son is not rehabilitated.

“They did not offer any kind of, to me, programs that would rehabilitate the children,” says Smith.

“Last year, kids decided to escape one night. While restraining one of the youth, I suffered a fracture to my left leg,” says Michell Piazza, a guard at Swanson.

Piazza testified before state lawmakers about how a 14-year-old juvenile inmate and others beat her.

“They kicked and stomped my head and face to try to gain access to another part of the facility to escape. And his words were, if I didn’t let them out, he would kill me,” says Piazza.

She says with a staffing shortage, no help came after repeated calls over the radio.

“It’s a scary feeling when you call for all units, and you’re the only available unit because nobody is coming. And this kid is kicking me and stomping me,” says Piazza.

The Director of the OJJ, Bill Sommers, admits there are serious problems within his office. He says there’s a manpower issue, pointing to the 312 openings right now throughout the system. He also believes the dormitory-style sleeping quarters for the juvenile inmates are nothing but trouble.

“At night time, youth are in a dorm, but they are free to move around to go and do what they do. They end up ganging up on other kids, and other staff, and when that happens, that’s when you have the issues. That’s when you have the escapes. That’s when you have the violence,” says Sommers.

Sommers proposes a tiered system, where juveniles are assessed as they enter the system according to age, education, mental status, and risk. From there, the juvenile inmates will be placed in either a low, medium, or high-risk facility. State lawmakers will take up this proposal this legislative session under a bill authored by Senator Heather Cloud.

There is also a new facility under construction in Monroe, where they’re building 72 individual rooms for what Sommers says will be considered the high-risk youth facility.

Many, though, worry it is not enough to fix the problem.

“Because they are not being rehabilitated and they are not getting the education that they should be getting. And from how I see it, we are doing a huge disservice to the kids,” says the former teacher.

“They need to put something in place that says, ok, here’s the way to fix what you’re here for. Louisiana really does not have any hope for our children,” says Smith.

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