Jetson youth center closure shrouded in secrecy

In a surprise move Sunday, the state Office of Juvenile Justice closed Jetson, a 65-year-old state juvenile prison in Baker, and secretly spirited its 76 inmates to other facilities between midnight and 2 a.m.

By sunrise, the facility was empty.

Only a small cadre of state officials knew beforehand about the plan to close Jetson Center for Youth, a spokeswoman for Office of Juvenile Justice said Sunday afternoon.

However, Jerel Giarrusso, the spokeswoman, said she did not know who was told in advance about the closure, except for some staff members in the Governor’s Office.

Nearly everyone else — the inmates, the 154 employees at Jetson Center for Youth and the employees at the two other state-operated juvenile prisons where the juveniles were taken — Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and Bridge City Center for Youth in New Orleans — were kept in the dark until just before the move Saturday night, according to Mary Livers, the Office of Juvenile Justice’s deputy secretary, at a Sunday news conference.

The process of notifying the parents of the offenders began Sunday morning, she said.

Fourteen of Jetson’s offenders were transferred to Bridge City, where there were already 110 youths, while 62 juveniles will join the 94 already housed at Swanson, Giarrusso said.

Livers said the Office of Juvenile Justice made the decision to close the facility a few weeks ago, but the move was kept a secret to maintain security when the boys, ages 12 to 20, were moved Sunday.

If the agency had announced its plans to employees and the public before the move, Livers said she feared Jetson employees would not show up for their jobs or to help with the move.

Livers said she did not know whether Jetson, on Old Scenic Highway and U.S. 61, will be remodeled, torn down, rebuilt and reopened, or permanently closed in favor of a new location for a juvenile facility.

She said there was no timetable to come to that decision.

The decision to close Jetson, which opened in 1948, Livers said, was made because it is an “obsolete, unsafe, and costly physical plant” … and “it does not fit into our reform efforts.”

Closing Jetson was necessary, she said, so the agency can move forward with its effort to reform its juvenile prisons, called secure care facilities.

For years, the Office of Juvenile Justice has worked to implement a therapeutic operating method called the Louisiana Model for Secure Care, adopted in 2009.

LAMOD is an offshoot of the nationally recognized Missouri Model that favors therapy and family involvement over running a juvenile facility like an adult prison and punishing its juvenile offenders.

Livers said the dormitory configuration and the large size of Jetson, which is on 800 acres, did not allow for “appropriate supervision of youth by staff.”

She said the movement of youth has been hard to monitor at Jetson due to the location of the buildings, which occupy about 25 acres of the site. In the past few years, there were several escapes from the facility.

“The campus itself is a correctional-type setting. It’s more prisonlike,” Livers said. “We want to be therapeutic. We want a place where kids can get their needs met and change their behavior, and that prisonlike setting does not support the direction we are going with the reform.”

Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said Sunday she was taken aback by the move being done in secret, but she was not surprised the state agency wanted to close Jetson.

“Dr. Livers talking about the inadequacy of the physical facility is something I’ve heard about for years,” Kaplan said. “It echoes concerns that I believe others have had for years about the makeup of Jetson.”

Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana has served as a watchdog in Louisiana over the state juvenile justice system as well as local government’s detention facilities and juvenile justice programs.

Beyond the concern about Jetson resembling a prison, Kaplan said another concern is the quality of programs available at Jetson “for youth to better themselves.”

In its next facility, Kaplan said she wants the state to make sure there is an investment in programming for the offenders as well as training for its staff that she said “are equally, if not more critical to success.”

The move leaves the state with three secure care juvenile facilities — Bridge City, Swanson and Swanson Columbia, a satellite branch of the Monroe facility — until the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie is completed, Livers said. Construction on that project has not begun, but Livers said it is expected to be finished in 18-24 months.

Jetson’s employees will be allowed to transfer to other facilities and will be placed on paid leave until their status is determined, Livers said. Some may retire and others may look for other jobs, but she hopes most take the offer to transfer to other facilities, she said.

The state has been working to reform the way it handles troubled youths since 2003 when the Legislature approved Act 1225, known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003.

In 2008, the Legislature voted to close Jetson, which was known for violence and brutality, but later relented and allowed it to stay open as a smaller regional care facility. Around that time, the number of inmates who called Jetson home was about 200 youths, but that number was reduced to about 70 in 2009.