Shut it Down! Human Rights Violations at New Orleans' Juvenile Detention Center
On January 19, 2007, New Orleanians and several local organizations voiced their support of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of juvenile inmates awaiting trial and housed at Orleans Parish’s Youth Study Center. The lawsuit was filed by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), a local nonprofit. The lawsuit targets Richard Winder, the head of the city’s Department of Human Services, and other facility leaders who JJPL claim have allowed inhumane conditions to continue despite mediation to avoid litigation. The conditions cited from youth testimony include the existence of rats and mold, the lack of educational services and adequately trained staff, and the practice of holding young people in their cells for at least 20 hours a day.
Dozens of concerned community members gathered under the covered cement basketball courts at Willie Hall Park directly across from the Youth Study Center on a cold and blustery day. They patiently listed to a broad range of speakers.
Using the facility as a backdrop, Dana Kaplan, Executive Director of JJPL, started the event with an update on the case.
“We filed a class action lawsuit on December 21 last year against Richard Winder and the leadership of the Youth Study Center. Kids are being held in that facility in inhumane conditions in violation of their constitutional rights,” Kaplan said. “Since we filed that last lawsuit they have denied us access to the facility. We are no longer able to interview children. So yesterday we filed an emergency motion to a federal judge so that we could regain access. If the city is doing what it’s supposed to do inside the Youth Study Center, why won’t they let the children talk to their lawyers?”
Before filing the lawsuit, JJPL advocates and lawyers from Washington D.C. were meeting with youth inside the facility, gathering testimonies on the conditions inside that form the bulk of their civil suit. At that time and since JJPL’s existence, any youth who asked to speak to an advocate with the organization would be granted that opportunity. Once JJPL filed a lawsuit, however, the city cut off all access to counsel for the youth at the facility, according to JJPL.
Officers present at the YSC have prevented lawyers and advocates from JJPL entered the facility. In addition, youth who ask for JJPL as counsel are no longer given an opportunity to speak to them, according to youth advocates. The emergency motion was filed to remedy this violation of the detained juveniles’ constitutional rights to counsel.
Representatives from organizations such as Friends and Family of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), Safe Streets/Strong Communities, Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, and Fyre Youth Squad, as well as vocal residents, roundly condemned the city’s refusal to improve conditions.
More than two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina’s flooding damaged 57 percent of the building. FEMA already allocated up to $4 million to aid in the replacement of the building, which was estimated at $16 million. Winder, YSC’s superintendent, has used the allocated funds for small and superficial repairs rather than putting the funds into a coherent plan for building a new, better detention facility. Activists argue that Winder is intentionally wasting funds in order to restrict future alternatives for the facility.
Orleans Parish Juvenile Chief Judge David Bell and the national nonprofit Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative among other stakeholders agree that the city needs to build a more secure, more humane facility for detained youth awaiting trial in New Orleans. In addition, JJPL hopes any future facility would be more focused on rehabilitation and transition, especially in holding to its current name as a “study” or educational center.
Joshua Short read short statements from some incarcerated boys. Short is a member of Fyre Youth Squad, a cross-city student organization to demand better and more accountable schools.
“We want new staff, new clothes, new food, but really we want it closed,” relayed Short. Another said, “I’m living like a dog.” With negligible recreation or educational options as well as communal hygienic products and vermin, the young people await trial in this transitional facility, not yet found guilty.
The Youth Study Center, originally built in 1959, remains as the lone transitional facility for arrested youth ages 8-16 who are awaiting trial. Despite the severe damage suffered by the center in the storm, it reopened in July 2006 with 12 beds. Currently, the devastated boys wing houses three beds for girls, while the girls wing currently houses twenty beds for boys.
Speaking for her peers with Fyre Youth Squad(FYS), high schooler Jessica Womack addressed other concerns with the facility in the post-Katrina landscape. “Centers such as these also do not have the capability to deal with special needs, disabilities and sometimes depression that happens in this post-Katrina society. FYS and I believe that this facility should be replaced by a better progressive alternative that lives up to its name,” Womack said. “[The center] should be equipped with teachers, books, recreation rooms and other ways to positively spend time. Children should be educated not incarcerated.”
Robert Goodman, a community organizer with Safe Streets/Strong Communities, spent time at the Youth Study Center decades ago.
“I am here today to stand in solidarity with Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and children who have been forced to live in the dehumanizing conditions,” Goodman emphasized.
“When I was a boy in the late 60’s I also had the unfortunate experience of being in the Youth Study Center. There were no educational programs and we spent most of our time locked up in our cells. From what these young people are saying, things have not changed in over forty years.”
Before heading off on a community second line through Gentilly and the Seventh Ward, Shedrick White, a poet with New Orleans Renaissance Society, spoke to the crowd. He had just come from the funeral of a sixteen-year-old boy and passionately lit into a poem describing a conversation between two young black men describing hard times. They speak past each other, one speaking of the thug and drug life while the other talks about just surviving oppression.
"When I said my hood was hard, I wasn’t talkin bout thuggin
I was talking bout hard from hard times that comes from hard cold strugglin’
See, it’s hard for us to eat at Horse’s or Copeland’s ‘cause all we can afford is churches
And it’s hard for us to get a visa or mastercard cause all we got is the Louisiana Purchase
Hard is how my daddy worked but he didn’t make much cash
And as close as he came to pulling out a credit card is when he pulled out his bus pass"
Amid a brass band and signs demanding the closure of the Youth Study Center, many residents danced, voiced support or even joined the protest second line—this most treasured cultural call to action. The route from Willie Hall Park to John Mac Senior High School explicitly brought together the two ends of the catch phrase “school-to-prison pipeline,” wherein children are criminalized in schools and led directly to the gates of juvenile or adult prison. Not long ago, in spring of 2006, John Mac had more security guards than teachers.
From this symbolic march, the lawsuit and its promoters press forward to garner public and political support while chanting “Shut Down the YSC!”
Tags: Human Rights , Prisons , Youth , New Orleans
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