Louisiana to Build New Youth Prisons to Replace Old, Unsafe Lockups; Advocates Concerned by Move

By Grace Toohey, The Advocate

The Acadiana Center for Youth is pictured Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Bunkie, La.  Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

The Acadiana Center for Youth is pictured Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Bunkie, La.

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Louisiana juvenile justice officials are taking the next step to building two new youth prisons replacing two aging youth lockups that drawn increased scrutiny over their safety and effectiveness.

While the new facilities will likely be a huge improvement over the decades-old complexes in Monroe and outside New Orleans, some children's advocates are concerned by what this plan could mean for the state's slow progress on juvenile justice reform, which years ago was supposed to move away from large prisons and instead focus on community services and rehabilitation.

This week, the governor gave the OK for the Office of Juvenile Justice to move forward with its plan to borrow up to $60 million for construction of the two new lockups, a cost the agency says it can pay through operational savings once they stop using Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and Bridge City Center for Youth outside of New Orleans. Both of these facilities are decades old — Swanson was built in the early 1900s; Bridge City has been around for at least 70 years — and require frequent and costly maintenance. And both have outdated designs and are far too large, requiring additional staff and upkeep.

This past year, OJJ closed four dorms in the two facilities, shifting many juveniles to their newest "secure care facility" — OJJ’s term for juvenile prisons — the Acadiana Center for Youth, which finally opened in March after repeated delays in funding. Its design and buildings are much more conducive the state's goal of providing a therapeutic approach to detention, OJJ officials say.

“As an agency, and an administrator, we see the state just dumping money into these older facilities that we are never going to get what we (could) get out of new facilitates," said James Bueche, the deputy secretary of the state Office of Juvenile Justice. "In essence, it will save the state money in the long run. … (And) hopefully we’ll see the kids do better in these facilities.”

By closing Bridge City and Swanson and instead operating two new facilities, OJJ officials project an annual savings of $8.4 million, which they say will cover the debt from the construction and financing of the new youth prisons, and even leave some dollars that could be used for more community-based services for youth.

But the financing plan to begin the two projects still needs to be approved by the State Bond Commission. Bueche said they hope to accomplish that this summer. Matt Kern, an attorney for the Louisiana Correctional Facilities Corporation, which facilitates financing and acquisition of prisons, called the $60 million that legislators and the governor allotted for the project an overestimation, explaining their proposal to the bond commission will be just below $50 million for both new buildings.

If approved this summer, Bueche said, the new juvenile prisons, which they want to model after the Acadiana Center for Youth, could be completed by 2021.

While advocates at the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights say the current Bridge City and Swanson facilities are below standards, they are concerned about the state's plan to simply replace them.

"We agree that Bridge City and Swanson need to be closed; they’re too large, outdated and dangerous," said Rachel Gassert, the policy director for the children's rights center. But she also notes there is "no evidence that a youth prison model really works that well to rehabilitate children."

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