(Mizani Ball/The Lens)

A juvenile detention center in Jonesboro, La. seems to be violating state law by housing pre-trial juveniles without a license from the Department of Children and Family Services.

The Jackson Parish Correctional Center has already been the subject of criticism from advocates and civil rights groups over conditions and mistreatment of youth.  

The facility opened in August. The next month, it made headlines, as the Office of Juvenile Justice announced that Jackson would be the next stop for youth moved from a controversial facility on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, chief of the Middle District of Louisiana, had ordered the teens removed from Angola penitentiary grounds in a mid-September ruling that criticized OJJ for violating the constitutional rights of youth, by ‘intolerable’ use of solitary confinement, use of handcuffs and mace and lack of schooling.

So the teens were moved to Jackson, which doesn’t seem much better. Kids soon reported that guards kept them in cells for days on end, repeatedly maced them, and handcuffed them with zip ties and made them kneel outside. Detained youth also claimed that they had little or no access to education and that they were in regular contact with adult detainees, violations of state and federal law.

Those violations are routine, said two mothers, who recently told The Lens that their sons, who had not yet been convicted or sentenced, stayed in their cells because they were frightened of being in more open dorms alongside OJJ-sentenced kids.

“We want our kids out of there,” one mother said. “This is pitiful. They ain’t keeping them safe.”

One of their sons, who spoke to The Lens from the facility said that he was being held in a cell 23 hours a day, and had been maced by guards several times.

“We in a grown persons facility,” he said. “We ain’t supposed to be in here. They don’t be trying to help us. They don’t break up no fights. They just let everything go on.”

As it turns out, state law also does not allow kids like theirs to be held there. Recently, child-welfare officials told The Lens that the detention center was not licensed by DCFS.

License required for detention of pre-trial kids

The lack of licensing would not be a problem if the Jackson Parish facility was only housing juveniles who had been through court proceedings and sentenced to time in OJJ “secure care facilities,” which act as juvenile prisons for delinquent youth. 

Secure care facilities do not require licensing from DCFS — or any independent agency. It’s sore point with state officials – one legislative task force called the lack of licensing for secure-care facilities a “glaring gap in oversight.”

But in Jackson, the problem is that the new facility is acting as a juvenile jail — housing kids pre-trial (called “pre-adjudication” in juvenile-court terminology). These are youth who have been arrested but have not been found guilty or sentenced to the custody of OJJ. 

To house pre-adjudicated teens requires a DCFS license – which Jackson does not have.

Or so DCFS spokesperson Heidi Rogers Kinchen confirmed last week, noting in an email that the facility was not properly licensed to be housing pre-trial adjudication youth. 

“DCFS was not aware of any pre-adjudicated youth being placed at the Jackson Parish facility,” she wrote. “The facility does not have a license to accept such a placement.”

Jackson facility keeps youth from at least two other parishes

(Facbook/Prison Enterprises)

It’s unclear how long this has been going on in Jackson.

Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown, whose office runs the facility, did not respond to questions or request for comment from The Lens. But on September 15, OJJ’s press release announcing the transfer of the Angola youth to Jackson described the facility as “already serving youth in local juvenile-justice programs.” 

At present, four pre-trial juveniles from Lincoln Parish are being held in Jackson, which collects roughly $200 a day per child from Lincoln to house the teens while they go through juvenile-court proceedings, according Major Sam Chrisman, director of the juvenile and special services for the Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Chrisman said that Lincoln Parish has been sending kids to Jackson since the facility opened in August. But he said didn’t know the facility lacked a license to house pre-adjudicated youth.

“That would be news to me,” Chrisman said. 

Union Parish also appears to house youth there. 

The Lens spoke with two mothers from the Union Parish town of Farmerville, located 45 miles from Jonesboro whose young sons are detained in the Jackson facility while their cases moved through juvenile court.

It’s very common for Louisiana parishes that lack juvenile-detention facilities to contract with other parishes to house arrested youth. 

Some parishes and cities have even contracted with facilities across state lines, in Alabama and Mississippi. That out-of-state placements, however, prompted critics to file suit, arguing that sending kids out of state violates Louisiana law – because the out-of-state facilities are not licensed by DCFS, which governs the care of Louisiana pre-trial youth. It’s an issue that remains unresolved.

State law mandates fines of $1,000 each day for anyone operating a juvenile-detention facility without a license. DCFS also may file suit to force the facility to cease operations. 

Rogers Kinchen of DCFS noted that the Jackson facility did apply to be licensed. But in September, when DCFS was informed that Jackson was taking in OJJ-sentenced juveniles from the Angola facility, to the Jackson Parish facility, the agency closed the application process. 

“Because DCFS does not license secure-care facilities, we notified Jackson that we would be closing their application for licensure to house pre-adjudicated youth as a non-secure juvenile detention facility,” she wrote. “DCFS further advised that if they wished to re-apply in the future, they would need to submit a new application.”

It’s not clear if DCFS will take any action against the Jackson Parish facility or how operating without a license could impact the facility’s chances of getting a DCFS license in the future – unlicensed facility operation is listed as one of the DCFS criteria for application denials. 

OJJ’s Deputy Secretary, Otha “Curtis” Nelson, wouldn’t say whether he knew that the Jackson facility wasn’t properly licensed. But overall, he said, he found “the Jackson Parish Juvenile Facility to be an appropriate facility to house both pre-adjudicated and post-adjudicated youth.”

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...