Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe. (FFLIC)

This summer, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice quietly entered into a year-long contract with Coleman Consulting Group, LLC, a private company, to provide security at two Louisiana youth prisons — Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville, and Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe.

Its security guards don’t need expertise in youth. The scope of their responsibilities are unclear. And the contract was given emergency authorization, allowing it to leapfrog much of the state’s contract-proposal process.

Each employee contracted by Coleman can make up to $25 an hour. But OJJ has agreed to pay Coleman $75 an hour for labor — and, on top of that, to cover employee housing, transportation and food. 

The $75 hourly rate is more than any public OJJ employee made in 2022. It’s multiple times what an average person working at a secure-care facility makes. State records show that juvenile justice specialists, who interact with detained youth every day, only pull in between $17 and $35 each hour.

“Somebody here is enriching themselves on the backs of Louisiana’s teenagers and taxpayers,” said David Utter, an attorney with Fair Fight Initiative, who was part of a recent lawsuit that succeeded in getting youth removed from an OJJ facility at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. “It seems very, very fishy to me, to have so much money being spent on so few people… to supervise kids.” 

In response to questions from The Lens, OJJ Deputy Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson said that, since the pandemic, the agency had struggled to keep  “frontline specialists trained to work with juveniles.” He emphasized that Coleman was hired to provide “temporary entry-level staff” at Swanson and Acadiana, who will be trained through the Office of Juvenile Justice, but won’t supervise OJJ staff. 

Contract comes after tumultuous year

The Coleman contract was inked after a difficult year for the Office of Juvenile Justice, which experienced a spree of escapes and violent incidents involving teens consigned to OJJ’s care — most notably those kept at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, where one youth ended up carjacking and shooting someone after escaping.

Employees fled the agency. Or, as Nelson described it, OJJ experienced a “very high turnover rate while also dealing with a number of unfortunate incidents impacting the youth, our staff and the surrounding communities.” 

In August of last year, as a besieged OJJ planned to move teens to Angola, to Bill Sommers, then deputy secretary of OJJ, told legislators that his agency had 350 vacancies, stretching OJJ far too thin to fill the guard positions themselves. “Everything comes down to staffing,” he’d said.

The timing of Coleman’s hiring a year later can perhaps be explained best by emails between OJJ and state procurement officials last spring. As it turns out, during the mayhem of last summer, OJJ had help from adult-system guards, brought on to “perform dormitory security, internal campus security and perimeter surveillance.” But by earlier this year, the emails show, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which manages adult prisons, wanted its guards back. 

In May of this year, OJJ Deputy Undersecretary Cassandra Washington told state procurement officials by email that despite aggressively recruiting “to relieve the DOC staff of the OJJ duties,” they needed to do more. She had “been in conversations with staffing agencies and consultants to acquire cost proposals for security-staffing support for at least a six (6) month to a one (1) year period.”

She asked for emergency authorization to fast-track a security contract. “This matter involves the safety of the youth, our staff and the public in which we serve, and it affects the quality of life for our current and future offender population,” she wrote. 

Just last month, OJJ decided to cancel its secure care contract with Ware Youth Center in Coushatta, which had been the subject of a report in The New York Times that included allegations of sexual abuse and rape by guards that led to state investigations. 

The facility was managed by the Ware Youth Center Authority, a political subdivision of the state, and held a $2.2 million contract with OJJ, the facility’s director told the Illuminator, who also said OJJ had agreed to increase that amount to $2.9 million.  

But in September, OJJ secretary Curtis Nelson announced that the agency would cancel the contract altogether — citing cost concerns. 

Deeply troubling reports have also come from the two facilities that Coleman serves – Swanson, in Monroe, and Acadiana, in St. Martinville.

Teens held in St. Martinville were regularly held in round-the-clock solitary confinement and provided no education for months, according to a report by NBC News, ProPublica, and the Marshall Project. (That facility is now an all-girls facility.)

Swanson has had periods of near-continuous violence, including a “riot” that destroyed a 36-bed housing unit. Construction crews are now fixing that unit and building a new 72-bed facility there. In a recent court hearing, OJJ Deputy Secretary Nelson described new design elements that will make the Swanson facility more impervious to escape and damages. 

Two decades ago, Louisiana tried privatization — and failed. 

To observers the move to contract out for staffing at those facilities raises questions about OJJ’s spending priorities. Private correctional entities, for both adults and juveniles, have not done well in the state.

In any branch of government, privatization can make transparency more difficult, because private companies don’t always know public records law or regularly hand over salary and personnel records to state entities. 

In this case, OJJ responded to some questions regarding the arrangement, but has not turned over basic documents in response to The Lens’s public records requests, including the invoices and staffing plans that Coleman is required to provide the state on a regular basis.

The Lens was able to obtain one document: the $9.5 million, one-year contract, which stipulates that Coleman will supply the two facilities with a consistent staff of 52 employees and provide for their transportation, lodging, and meals. 

The math: OJJ is dishing out more than $180,000 per year for each Coleman guard. 

A breakdown submitted by Coleman divided the billing into $75 an hour for labor, with $98 a day for lodging and $59 daily for meals and incidentals, plus travel reimbursement. Coleman did not respond to questions from The Lens about how much overhead was included in each category and how much would actually be paid to Coleman staffers.

To Utter, a prime figure in the state’s juvenile-justice reforms two decades ago, the Coleman contract harkens back to what he described as Louisiana’s failed experiment in juvenile corrections. That included several private juvenile prisons in Louisiana, most notoriously a facility at Jena, which was the last one to be shut down.  

Jena was run by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation — now known as GEO Group. Experts who investigated the facility found teens without shoes or adequate warm clothing in winter. Untrained guards made the prison “a dangerous place to be,” with a quarter of the inmates “traumatically injured” in a two-month period, according to a 2000 report by The New York Times

In 2001, after litigation with the U.S. Department of Justice, the state shuttered Jena.

Since then, Utter said he was unaware of OJJ using private security at its facilities – until it signed a contract with Coleman. “I have never seen it,” Utter said. “I was part of the litigation back in 1998. And I have never seen this happen in Louisiana before.” 

Not exactly, said Nelson, the deputy secretary, who said that in fact OJJ had hired extra security staff in the past, but did not provide details.

Hector Linares, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Loyola Law School, who also worked for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana during the state’s “reform era,” shared Utter’s concerns regarding the Coleman contract.

“This is another step backwards that OJJ is taking with regard to the state’s youth justice system,” Linares said in an email, noting the state “rightfully moved away from this kind of privatization” when it closed the Jena facility.  

At every level, Linares saw problems: “The large costs and lack of clarity with regard to the scope of services, qualifications and OJJ oversight in the contract exacerbate general concerns related to accountability and transparency that generally come with the privatization of secure facilities for youth.”

‘There’s a profit motive’

It’s unclear what exactly Coleman’s employees do at Swanson and Acadiana — if they work with teens or merely help beef up security.

According to the contract, Coleman “shall provide the highest level of security within the facilities by observing the youth offenders to insure [sic] that they follow facility rules and to prevent offender activities which may lead to escapes, assaults against other youth offenders or [Youth Services] personnel and damage to facility property.”

In emails to other potential contractors, OJJ said that Coleman’s contract employees would be basically acting as Juvenile Justice Specialists – who not only provide security, but also engage with the kids and participate in therapy sessions and treatment meetings. 

There is some screening and onboarding: Coleman employees go through a security background check and will receive training from OJJ, according to the contract.

In response to questions from The Lens, Bridgette Coleman, owner of Coleman Consulting Group, said that Coleman has an “established history of providing technical assistance contractors and staff augmentation services as a subcontractor to several federal entities” and that their  “past experience positions the firm to fully execute the services requested by OJJ.” 

Coleman did not respond to questions regarding the hiring process for employees, necessary qualifications, or how positions were advertised. 

On a weekly or monthly basis, Coleman is supposed to file reports with OJJ, including staffing plans and invoices. 

But when The Lens requested those reports, OJJ could only provide the initial contract. The contract was the “the only documents/information that our section of the Office of Juvenile Justice has been provided with,” said a member of OJJ’s legal department, who would not say whether the monthly or weekly reports exist.  

In principle, Utter doesn’t believe that a private company should be supervising children in secure care. “Anytime there’s a profit motive – the incentive to make that profit and make as much of a profit as possible — it completely pushes out the care for the incarcerated people, including kids,” he said. 

Utter also said, the contract’s length – one year – doesn’t give Coleman employees enough time to gain trust and build meaningful relationships with the kids they supervise. With no staff records, it was impossible to calculate turnover within Coleman’s OJJ contingent.

“The thing we know about adolescents, especially kids in the juvenile justice system that come with so much trauma, is that they need consistency,” Utter said. “And they need highly skilled adults around them, to work with them and to care for them. You don’t get that by having people working for a firm that has a one-year contract with the state. It’s just not possible.”

Dawn Boyd, a former employee of Swanson, concurs. Boyd has been critical of the facility’s treatment of youth in their care and believes that short-term staffing is a wrong-headed solution. “You have to have a certain type of mentality to work (with teens),” she said. “You can’t go in there just wanting a paycheck, because it’s never going to work.”

From Gina Womack’s perspective, the Coleman contract is part of a pattern by the agency in its current incarnation. Womack –  the executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) – was also part of the core group of advocates that successfully pushed the state to reforms two decades ago. Before then OJJ fell under the auspices of DOC. She was outspoken in pushing for reforms to create a separate agency for children, with strict distance from the adult system.

Advocates with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children stand outside of Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe in October of 2021, calling for the facility to be closed. (Photo courtesy of FFLIC)

So now, as Womack sees OJJ “pouring money into private security contracts,” that becomes part of the agency’s larger failures: “misguided priorities and failures to truly transform the youth justice system.” 

For instance, Womack said, even while OJJ complains about a need for qualified staff, she said, “the real problem is that they are not hiring the right kind of staff–such as counselors, educators, and therapists–that would transform our system into a more sustainable, effective, and holistic model of care.”

Emergency contract

Records show that the Coleman contract was created in haste. Normally, an agreement like the one between OJJ and Coleman would go through at least a six-month process that includes posting the RFP on the state website for 30 days, followed by an evaluation of the proposals and the vendors, and discussions with agency heads about how to best meet their needs. 

If no vendor meets the agency’s needs, the contract may go back out to bid a second time, sometimes with refined language to attract a better match. 

By comparison, this contract was done in the snap of a finger. Because it received emergency authorization, OJJ was not required to put out a request for proposals at all, and instead independently solicited cost proposals from a handful of vendors.

Coleman submitted its proposal on May 31. OJJ asked state procurement officers to approve it the same day. The contract was ultimately signed on July 11, then backdated to begin on July 1, a mere month after Coleman had submitted its proposal.. 

Another company, Ammon Security, gave OJJ a quote of $23 an hour for the requested security, less than a third of the labor cost that Coleman proposed. That proposal was rejected by OJJ because Ammon could not coordinate lodging and transportation, according to emails.

“The quote is strictly for labor costs, but the vendor nor the quote has intentions of provisions for a targeted group of personnel and the vendor will not be able to coordinate lodging, transportation, etc. to ensure that the staff are on-site as scheduled for work,” Washington, the OJJ undersecretary, wrote. “Ammon Staffing can only provide applicants as they express interest, unlike Coleman Consulting Group, LLC who have a pool of staff for selection and who will continue to actively recruit for this need.”

Before they signed with Coleman, OJJ also asked for quotes from three other private security and surveillance companies — Lofton Security Services, Valen Security and Surveillance, and Stratigos Dynamics.  Lofton said they could only provide services in the southern part of the state, and Valen told officials they were not licensed to provide security staffing. Stratigos never provided a quote, according to OJJ.

To Utter, it sometimes seems like OJJ is operating like a private company, with Nelson at the helm doing what he wants to do with contracts. 

“This isn’t Curtis Nelson’s money,” Utter said. “This isn’t OJJ’s money. This is Louisiana taxpayer money. And anytime you’re spending tax dollars, you have an obligation to be fully transparent about how that money is being spent.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...