Former Jetson employees gather, complain of closure

More than 35 employees with the recently closed Jetson Center for Youth, who have either lost their jobs or are about to lose their jobs, gathered Thursday to criticize the closure and to complain about the way they have been treated.

Lyndsy Roberts, a paraprofessional test administrator with the facility’s education department, said Jetson’s closure was nothing more than a political move so a new facility could be built in its place.

“Employees here were treated like warm bodies. We weren’t cared about and all we did was our jobs,” Roberts said Thursday evening following a meeting at the Scotlandville branch library.

All 76 juvenile offenders at the state Office of Juvenile Justice facility near Baker were transferred to either the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe or the Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans between midnight and 2 a.m. on Jan. 26.

The transfer was done secretly and few state officials knew beforehand about the plan to close the facility.

The inmates, the 154 employees of the 65-year-old state juvenile prison and the employees of the other two juvenile facilities where the inmates were taken were not notified before the move, Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Mary Livers has said.

Livers has said the transfer took place “under tight security to ensure public safety” and because there was a fear Jetson employees would not have come to work Jan. 26 if they knew of the closure.

The decision to close Jetson, which opened in 1948, was made because it is an “obsolete, unsafe and costly physical plant” and the facility does not fit in the state’s reform efforts.

Livers has said Jetson “was not conducive to delivery of the therapeutic model while ensuring safety of youth and staff.” That operating method, the Louisiana Model for Secure Care, was adopted in 2009.

No decision has been made on whether Jetson will be torn down and rebuilt or transformed into a smaller, new facility.

Of the 154 employees of Jetson, 21 were notified about impending layoffs, 10 were terminated because they were probational employees and the other 123 were offered positions at the state’s other juvenile justice facilities, Office of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jerel Giarrusso said Thursday.

But employees at the meeting said they were not given any severance pay and most of those who were offered new jobs had 30 days to decide if they wanted to work at the facility in Monroe, about a four-hour drive from Baton Rouge.

State Rep. Dalton HonorĂ©, D-Baton Rouge, who represents the area where Jetson is located, spoke to the disgruntled state employees and told them the building’s facility was “old, dilapidated and not conducive for classroom education.”

HonorĂ© also told the employees that he has received a good number of letters from Jetson employees complaining about the conditions of the facility and of fights between employees and inmates as well as brawls between inmates and other inmates. He spoke to investigators with the state Inspector General’s Office in recent months about possibly launching an investigation into Jetson.

Many in the audience shot back that the Bridge City and Swanson facilities are much more dangerous than Jetson.

Union representative Ed Parker, of AFSCME Louisiana Council 17, told the employees it didn’t sound like the Office of Juvenile Justice had a layoff plan approved by the state Civil Service Board before layoff intentions were announced, something that would put the agency in violation of state civil service procedure.

Parker advised the employees to file grievances with the Civil Service Board and told them they might want to hire labor attorneys to file a class-action civil lawsuit against the state. When employees complained about the burden of having to take a job four hours away, Parker said he would not move away from his family before knowing if he had a job or not.

No state Office of Juvenile Justice official attended Thursday’s meeting.

When reached by phone Thursday night, Beth Touchet-Morgan, deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, said 81 Jetson employees were offered jobs in Monroe while 36 were offered jobs in Bridge City.

When asked how many open jobs were available Thursday at Swanson and Bridge City, Touchet-Morgan said 81 at Swanson and 36 at Bridge City based on the needs of the populations there.

Touchet-Morgan said the layoff plan approval with civil service “is ongoing.”

She also said those detained at Jetson were transferred to the other two facilities so they “could be better served.”