On Monday, The Lens filed suit against the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, demanding public records tied to a $9.5 million private contract for security staff. Let me explain why we took this serious, but altogether necessary, action.
As an independent news organization, one of our jobs is to ensure that taxpayer-funded government agencies are transparent in their decision-making and spending. We report the news. We act as a watchdog. In doing so, we hope that our stories result in a higher level of accountability. It’s the messy, very much non-linear, nature of democracy.
We are suing for documents, including staffing plans and invoices, related to the private security contract for two of the state’s youth prisons that began on July 1, 2023. The state agency has refused to provide these records, and with the help of Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, we’re going to court to gain access to them, so we can gather more information and continue our reporting.
Lives are at stake here. In recent years, according to court testimony, children in custody at OJJ facilities have been held in solitary confinement for extended periods, denied education, and injured by guards using regular and excessive uses of force.
Due to staffing shortages, the state gave emergency authorization to the contract in question. But there’s a precedent here, and it comes with several warning flags. The agency has previously hired private contractors to manage its juvenile justice facilities with disastrous results—poor outcomes and higher costs. So it’s important that the public have a full understanding of the current arrangement.
In the fall, our criminal justice reporter Nick Chrastil began looking into the hastily arranged contract, which is turning out to be an expensive one for Louisiana taxpayers. The $9.5 million contract for 52 employees amounts to paying the private staffing company, Coleman Consulting Group, LLC, $180,000 per employee for a year. Of course, most of that money will not be going to the employees themselves, who can only make up to $25 an hour. But we have not been given the weekly invoices to tell us where our money is being spent. We haven’t received the staffing plans required by the contract, which would help us understand the needs of the agency and how the private guards are being used. The last time the state used private guards, children in custody suffered and the U.S Department of Justice even sued the state for maintaining “dangerous and life-threatening conditions.”
When Chrastil made his records request, the OJJ acknowledged receipt of the request — and then subsequently ignored it. After he repeatedly followed up, the office sent him a copy of the contract, a document Chrastil already had. The Lens’ request was specific in intent. Because of OJJ’s balky and incomplete response, the lawsuit is necessary and very much in the public interest because, without it, The Lens cannot fully explain this expensive, important private contract to the public.
We’re suing for several reasons: to ensure government transparency, to prevent the misuse of public funds, to keep a failed history from repeating itself, and to fulfill our promise to tell full stories. To do our work, we must gain access to vital public records like these.