‘It’s a sh**hole’: Task force tours “unsafe” East Baton Rouge juvenile detention center

BATON ROUGE — Following two escapes within days of each other from the East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Detention Center, facility leaders and the East Baton Rouge Parish Jail Task Force toured the detention center on Wednesday to gain a better understanding of the issues that plague the housing of young offenders in the area.

“Unsafe environment”

The East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Detention Center often grapples with faulty parts in its 70-plus-year-old building. Despite having the capacity to accommodate 52 children, it typically holds only around 35. Problems with the aging facility were partly responsible for the escape of two 17-year-olds in November.

David Atkins and Willie Jackson escaped from the detention center on Nov. 25. The duo exploited a faulty door for their exit. Atkins had been recaptured just 10 days prior after escaping with another teenager, Jeremiah Green, on Nov. 14 from the same facility.

“These facilities were built when air conditioning units were not required,” Hurst said. “At some point, all these buildings have to be retrofitted. The low ceilings that we saw in the jail, the same low ceilings that we see in a juvenile detention center, and the ability to grab onto wires and cameras make it a more unsafe environment.”

Hurst added that the outdated standards also pose challenges for the employees, citing state ratio requirements of one worker per eight juveniles during the daytime, increasing to one to 16 at night.

He said, “When we talk about retrofitting, I don’t believe there’s an ability to retrofit for less than … $50 million.”

‘It’s a joke’

Hurst emphasized that replacing the current facility is more sensible than attempting modifications or upgrades. He mentioned plans to visit facilities in Terrebonne Parish, Lake Charles, and potentially other out-of-state locations to gather insights on what a new facility should entail. Former EBR mayor-president Kip Holden tried to push a $335 million tax plan to build a new parish prison and juvenile justice center in 2015, but the plan never materialized.

Jacqueline Nash Grant, a Southern University Clinical Law Professor and the Clinical Law Professor of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Southern University Law Center, criticized the Baton Rouge facility in comparison to others around the state.

“(The facility) is a joke. If you go to Shreveport, New Orleans, or Lake Charles, they have what we call “palaces.” They have facilities to help the families,” she said. “The building in Shreveport was built 40 years ago and is in a better position than EBR. Our building was built 70 years ago and is dilapidated. There is an entire wing that is leaking. When it rains, they have to cancel court because the parking lot floods. The building’s state and the under-education of the staff are parts of the reasons for escapes of juveniles. But all of this takes money to fix. Nobody wants to raise the taxes. People want to talk about the crimes committed by the children, but they don’t want to put their money where their mouth is.”

“It’s time to tear this place down”

Hurst was asked what it would take to get a new facility, and his answer was simple.

“It’s only one answer to what it takes for a new facility, and it’s called money,” he said. “A lot of people, when they look at the kids that are housed here, they cannot empathize with those kids. A lot of these folks are marginalized people who have gotten to a life of crime because they couldn’t get medicine for their grandmother or because they had a hungry sister who was crying at home and had to figure out how to feed them. Until you can be a part of that environment and understand the challenges that these folks go through, you’ll never understand why it’s so important to spend the money to build these new facilities.”

Fellow EBR Councilmember Aaron Moak, also part of the task force that toured the facility, found the experience eye-opening. He emphasized the need to modernize the facility, pointing out low ceilings, rusted air vents, and door frames. The portable “T” buildings surrounding the main facility, initially a temporary solution, have become permanent.

“It is a s**thole,” he said. “It is horrible. It needs to be replaced as soon as possible. We’re not gonna sit here and give you a country club, city club, or anything like that, but the facilities that are there right now that were built so long ago, trying to keep up with standards of today and everything else, and dumping money into what we have is not the right thing to do.

“It’s time to tear this place down and get something done as quickly as possible.”

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