Juvenile prisons try to change lives in face of violence

Group model allows specialists to learn about the juveniles, monitor them long-term

By Ashley Mott
The News-Star

MONROE, La. (AP) - Teens housed at Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, a secure care facility for juvenile males, spend most days attending classes, working on anger management and substance abuse issues or playing basketball at their dorms.

But, not every day goes as planned.

As of Nov. 1, twelve days in 2017 ended with multiple juveniles facing additional criminal charges. Those charges ranged from rioting to battery of a correctional facility employee and aggravated escape.

Since the beginning of the year, 36 arrests have taken place in connection with one dozen incidents at the center, according to a 2017 youth arrest summary. The report was provided to The News-Star in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

In the same time frame, no incidents leading to new criminal charges took place at the smaller Swanson Center for Youth in Columbia while 11 incidents led to 20 arrests at the Bridge Center City for Youth in Jefferson Parish.

All three programs are classified as secure care facilities for juvenile males by the Office of Juvenile Justice.

During a tour of the Monroe campus, Dr. James Bueche, Deputy Secretary of OJJ, discussed the incidents while presenting an overall view of the department's efforts to rehabilitate youth using the Louisiana Model for Secure Care.

Bueche said that the population at Swanson has decreased by several dozen over the past year as improved assessments helped assign youth to the facilities or programs that will help reduce their chances of returning to secure custody after release.

Sentences for juvenile offenders can range from house arrest or enrollment in community based facilities to a stint at one of the Swanson centers or Bridge City.

An interview process helps determine the best environment for placement. Criteria include whether the offender has a history of substance abuse or violence.

"These facilities are secure facilities for youth deemed a threat to public safety," Bueche said, explaining that only 12 percent of the juvenile justice population is housed at the three locations statewide.

Ensuring the teens receive the right type of placement is a critical part of the process. According to Bueche, housing youth with a lower level offense in a secure facility can increase their chance of recidivism and expose them to unnecessary violence.

The teens sent to Swanson are already at a high-risk of returning to the justice system when they enter.

"They either have a history of violence or are not amendable to treatment in community-based programs," Bueche said.

As part of the rehabilitation of the program, he said staff at the facility are now allowed to file charges if they feel like they were assaulted or battered. According to Bueche, the practice was generally frowned upon previously.

An investigative services team reviews the charges to determine validity. If a finding is disputed, an outside law enforcement agency is brought in to review the case.

The changes have helped with staff retention while allowing the teens to understand there are repercussions for their actions beyond the walls of the facility.


The numbers

Altercations, including those that did not result in additional criminal charges, at the three secure care facilities have fluctuated through the past three fiscal years.

Over the past three years, altercations at Monroe decreased in year two before rising again in year three. The most recent period's records, which end in June, indicate an uptick in incidents. However, the overall numbers remain lower than the first reporting period provided to The News-Star, 2014-15.

In Bridge City altercations, year two of the past three was the most violent year with a decline in incidents noted for the year-ending in June. Year one was the least violent year.


Punishment for infractions

Many of the offenders involved in incidents at Swanson over the past year were charged as adults and were booked into Ouachita Correctional Center. Others were processed as juveniles and their records sealed.

Bueche said many of the teens booked as adults opt to return to Swanson for access to the programs and the rehabilitative efforts of the facility.

At Swanson, a dormitory with a traditional cell block format was recently shuttered. Until recently, it was used to house teens who acquired new infractions at the facility. They are now housed in a more secure dormitory with a reduced population.

Bueche said the cell block frequently housed the same children on a rotating basis. They would be moved back to a dormitory and then return, never working through their anger issues or the problems that led to the transfer.

Now, as the teen spends time in the secure dormitory and begins to reach goals, he is gradually allowed access to greater privileges and larger activities until he is moved back into the general population.

Afterward, the juvenile justice specialist assigned to the secure dorm will follow up for an extended time period to help the teen maintain his progress. The new plan has reduced recidivism.


Life in a secure facility

In regular security dorms at secure care facilities, approximately 12 teens are housed in a group setting with two juvenile justice specialists.

Beth Touchet-Morgan, OJJ executive management adviser, said staff are assigned to each dorm to develop a family-type environment.

The group model allows specialists to learn about the juveniles and monitor them long-term with a focus on addressing areas of concern. While helping the youth master basic skills, such as making the bed and adhering to a schedule, specialists also address problems that appear throughout the day.

When an issue occurs, all residents of the dorm can sit down in a circle and talk through the problem.

Specialists also engage with the teens by playing board games or participating in sports. During school hours, the staff also attends class with their dorm to discuss issues that occur in the classroom without interrupting the school day.

Touchet-Morgan said educational options on the campus range from primary school to college courses.

She said the average 16-year-old entering the facility often tests at the sixth-grade-level.

This makes school courses and the offering of the HiSET an important option as well as the development of vocational skills. The HiSet is an exam that provides the opportunity for a high school equivalency credential.

Bueche said each juvenile receives an individual treatment plan upon entering the facility. This can include an educational component, substance abuse treatment and anger management courses as well as other programs offered.

Often the youth are assigned to a facility because their treatment plan requires a course offered at a specific place.

"All of the programs are evidence based to get kids thinking for a change about how to make appropriate decisions and move forward," he said.

As they move through the plan and accomplish their goals, the juveniles can step down to community based programs, such as a halfway house, and eventually return home under the supervision of a parole officer.

The juveniles housed in secure facilities come from diverse backgrounds, many have lived through traumatic situations and approximately 40 percent need special education accommodations.

Buece said some juveniles you can reach and some you can't, but most buy into the structure of the facility.

Program goals include providing each with additional tools to help them on the road ahead, like their high school diploma or the skills necessary to obtain a job upon release.

"We want to improve their situation, so when they leave, they are better off than when they came in," Buece said.

Published: Mon, Dec 04, 2017