Records obtained by The Lens continue to raise questions about safety and conditions at the Youth Study Center in Gentilly. Image courtesy Kevin Henry, Fox8 News.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Recent disciplinary actions at the city’s juvenile prison, along with a pair of damning new reports, raise fresh questions about the safety of juvenile detention centers in New Orleans and across the state and country.

Documents released in response to a public-records request from The Lens show that in May the City of New Orleans fired an employee at the Youth Study Center in Gentilly, after the worker admitted threatening to “knock the f— out of” a youth, and for sleeping  on duty. The employee’s actions created a “major security breach,” according to his termination letter from the city.

Other public records show that the city in April backed off a February decision to fire a kitchen worker at the center, after rat droppings were found on top of mashed potatoes. Instead of firing the worker, the city without explanation decided to give her two weeks suspension and demote her – but not cut her pay.

The city has not responded to requests for comment on the disciplinary action, which came more than a year after a federal judge approved consent decrees ordering  improved conditions inside the facility. A recent investigation by The Lens revealed that youth are routinely overmedicated at the facility and others like it across the state.

One reform group that pushed for the federal consent decree said the disciplinary action might be a positive development.

“Some of the issues that you’re seeing there are actually a sign that the city is working to improve conditions at the facility,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. “Historically these kinds of grievances have gone unaddressed, but we’re actually seeing a real effort to improve conditions at the Youth Study Center now.”

Nevertheless, a recent national report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, and another report on state juvenile facilities by the New Orleans-based advocacy group Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, raise persistent questions about the cost and effectiveness of juvenile incarceration.

The national report found that juvenile incarceration exposes youth to violence and abuse and tends not to reduce criminality among the formerly confined after their release. Both reports suggest that community-based and in-home programs are more effective and cost taxpayers a fraction of incarceration’s price.

“On the good side, there are one third as many kids in the juvenile justice system in Louisiana as there were when we began our reform efforts in 2002,” said Bart Lubow, director of juvenile justice strategy with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “On the other hand, for the 600 or so kids who are still in the system, they are not in good facilities, and I’d argue that a substantial percentage of the kids in those facilities need not be there.”

The report by the Families and Friends group alleged numerous shortcomings in Louisiana youth facilities, including lack of family involvement, poor staff training, harsh and inconsistent settings, and a lack of government openness.

“Families are trusting that their children will get the treatment and the services they need,” said Gina Womack, FFLIC’s executive director. “And so when the children are further being abused and neglected inside these facilities, we really feel like that’s criminal on behalf of the facility.”

It costs the state just over $100,000 a year to keep a child in a juvenile facility, Kaplan said, compared with $5,000 to hook them up with a community-based alternative such as the Youth Empowerment Project on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

Despite these numbers, more than half of the $21 million the state cut in 2009 from the $80 million Office of Juvenile Justice budget was at the expense of alternative programs. The move drew the ire of The Times-Picayune, which accused the state legislature of cutting effective community-based programs in favor of large-scale warehousing of youth.

“I think what the reports demonstrate is that although the mandate of our juvenile justice system is to improve the rehabilitation rate, far too often we see that the outcomes are the complete opposite,” Kaplan said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who signed off on the 2009 cuts, did not respond to a request for comment made through his office.