Jetson secrecy aimed at limiting protest

The late-night transfer last month of youthful offenders from a north Baton Rouge facility was kept secret from staff and family to ensure enough employees would be on hand and to keep protestors from showing up, the head of the state agency in charge of incarcerating youngsters said Thursday.

The deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, Mary L. Livers, said she chose not to tell the staff the Jetson Center of Youth was closing immediately until around 10 p.m. on the night of Jan. 25.

That was moments before the 76 youthful offenders housed there were handcuffed and chained at the ankle by the officers. Sixty-two of the youths were loaded into buses and transferred about 165 miles north to a facility near Monroe. Fourteen others were sent 78 miles south to an institution near New Orleans.

“We would have called the parents that evening, but we didn’t want to disturb them in the middle of the night,” Livers testified to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission.

Under questioning by commission members, Livers said she also feared some family members would be upset at the decision to abruptly move the children and some of them could have shown up to protest at the facility near U.S. 61 north of Baker.

“It just didn’t make sense if you’re going to maintain the integrity of the way this was going to play out,” Livers said.

“Based on prior experience with such announcements, the team believed once the plan was made public, many staff would naturally focus on securing new positions, thus leaving the facility with insufficient staff to protect and treat the youth,” Livers stated in a letter to the commission reporting on the relocation.

Only a handful of the Office of Juvenile Justice’s top executives and a few members of the governor’s staff were aware of the plans to move the offenders and close Jetson.

Following the prescribed procedures used for hurricane evacuations, Livers said, the children were restrained, escorted to transport vehicles and driven in buses on largely empty roads to the Bridge City Center for Youth and Swanson Center for Youth. The move “went very smoothly.”

Livers said the youngsters were allowed to phone their parents starting around 6 a.m. the morning of Jan. 26.

Livers said the state opened three new dorms at Swanson to accommodate the transfers. Bridge City has 10 dorms to accommodate the Jetson youth. In addition, the state increased the number of offenders in existing dorms from 12 to 14.

Tracie J. Woods, a member of the commission, said she thought that Livers had not demonstrated enough concern for the employees, which prompted applause from the audience of about 70 people.

Livers said the Office of Juvenile Justice officials have met with the 154 employees at Jetson. Many of them were offered positions at Swanson and Bridge City. Sixty-two of the Baton Rouge employees have reported for work in Monroe and New Orleans, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice.

Twenty are scheduled to begin working in March, six retired and 14 others found new employment.

Fifty-two people lost their jobs because of the transfer. Alonzo Jones was one of them. He said before transferring the youths and laying off staffers, Livers failed to document any of the contentions that Jetson was not fitting in with the treatment model the administration wants to adopt. He asked the commission to consider overriding the administration’s decision to close Jetson and bring the offenders back.

“There’s no reason why Jetson should be closed,” Jones said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice was spending more and more money on repairing and maintaining the 66-year-old buildings on the Jetson campus, Livers said. The fire alarms didn’t always work; the lighting systems broke down constantly.

“The facility is a money pit,” Livers said. “It was my decision to say enough was enough. We have better options available.”

Livers, who has long complained about the condition of Jetson’s physical plant, said she wants to take 20 to 50 acres from Jetson’s 460-acre campus and build a new center for treating youth offenders.