No place in the world imprisons people at a higher per capita rate than the state of Louisiana. And that incarceration pays — for the profiteers who run the state’s private prisons
For the incarcerated, a totally different story. In 1998, the New York Times described one of Louisiana’s privately run facilities, the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, as possibly the worst such prison in the nation, a site “rife with brutality, cronyism, and neglect.”
Grace Bauer-Lubow saw her son incarcerated at Tallulah, and she would go on to become a leader in the grassroots drive that shut the facility down. That struggle looms large in a new report, Mothers at the Gate: How a Powerful Family Movement Is Transforming the Juvenile Justice System, from the Institute for Policy Studies Criminalization of Poverty Project.
Report co-author Karen Dolan sat down with Bauer-Lubow to talk about the Tallulah facility, the fortunes made off it, and the families that closed it.
How did you come to know the Tallulah youth prison?
My son Corey was sent there at age thirteen after breaking into a pickup truck. He went through a juvenile reception and diagnostic center, and the state of Louisiana decided that a rehabilitation treatment facility would be best for him. They showed me some very nice brochures about Tallulah.
I didn’t know anything about Tallulah beyond the brochures. I didn’t even know it was a prison. But when we drove up, it was nothing like a treatment facility. It was obviously a prison, concrete walls, razor wire, prison guards.
And then it would become clear, from the very first visit we had after his confinement, that he was being abused. He wasn’t receiving education and treatment. His face and ribs were black and blue with bruises. He wasn’t getting enough to eat. He was dirty with boils on his skin. He was getting no schooling, no treatment.
Can you tell us about the origins of the prison?
The Trans-American Development corporation built this prison with zero background in youth development, rehabilitation, trauma, or mental health treatment. They were simply businessmen. And the money for Tallulah had to be borrowed against Louisiana’s credit. So that in order to close it, they would need to default and drive down the whole state’s credit rating. So even though everyone knew rather quickly that Tallulah was a hell-hole, there was no political will to close it.
Louisiana’s legislative auditor found that between January 1995 and April 2001, three execs at Trans-American Development Associates received $8.7 million dollars from the Tallulah deal. Even after lawsuits forced the state to take control of the prison in 1999, these three continued to grab over a half a million per year. How did this factor into the appalling conditions at the prison?
You had this profit motive in there and no mechanism for oversight. The level of violence and mismanagement was stunning.
How could such cruelty proliferate in a facility for youth?
A number of reasons. The only place to file a grievance was with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, where complaints went to die. And, remember, many families feared retribution against their children on the inside if they complained.
I complained and weeks later got a form letter back saying they were investigating. I never got another response after that.
Trans-American operated under a shroud of secrecy. They hired guards and covered up violence. The secrecy began to unravel only after the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and the U.S. Department of Justice got involved and launched a lawsuit.
The Louisiana secretary of education came out to assess the situation as a result of this lawsuit. She personally told me that my son was going to die if he stayed there under the conditions she found.
The prison health facilities at Tallulah couldn’t accommodate the number of serious injuries and sexual assaults, so some injured children had to be treated outside the prison, in public health facilities. That exposed some of the horrors of Tallulah, too.
Can you tell us about the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003 and why it was necessary?
This state legislation was a direct result of our Close Tallulah Now campaign. It basically acknowledged that Louisiana had a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality, not a rehabilitation mentality.
Most of the children at Tallulah were there on petty offenses. They were a long way from their families and communities. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act favored facilities in children’s communities. It forced the state to take the money out of warehousing kids and put it back into the community to help them.
Tallulah was finally closed to juveniles in 2004. What brought the closure about?
A convergence of all of the right people at the right time with the right target. We had the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and the Justice department lawsuit and many allies and advocates. The community of Tallulah eventually began to turn against the prison as well, because all of the good jobs promised to the community never materialized.
And as soon families came into the fight, we had faces to the statistics. This is what finally began to shift the legislative bodies on this away from fearing a credit default to saving children. Within two years, we built up the political will for change.
The Prison Legal News reports that Damon Hininger, the CEO of the nation’s largest private prison corporation, CCA, received a base salary of $882,807 in 2015, with over $2.5 million in other compensation. George Zoley, the CEO of the GEO Group, the country’s second-largest private prison corporation, pocketed a $1 million salary, with $5.6 million in additional compensation. If you had a chance to speak with one of these executives, what would you want them to know?
I once saw a GEO memo to shareholders that talked about how it made sense to invest in private prisons in Louisiana because the state had an increasing population of kids in the juvenile system that would be fed into the adult system, ensuring a large inmate population for the private prisons.
So I would tell these executives that I understand your wanting to make a buck. But why can’t you try to make that buck working to help children, not to break them?
I know the answer: Because they don’t care. If they invest in treatment, then the kids in juvenile facilities would go on and have happy and healthy lives and not fill their prisons. This has bred such hopelessness and despair, and this legacy is continuing on into the next generation.
We see stark racial disparities at every level of the juvenile legal system nationwide, from profiling and arrest to sentencing and detention. Did you see evidence of this at Tallulah?
Absolutely. You walk in and there are about three white kids to about 85 black kids. That was true throughout the state. The racial disparities were blatant and shocking. A white probation officer told me that my kid got caught up in a corrections system meant for black kids. He didn’t use the word black. He used a different word that I am not going to say.
Tell us about your current work. You co-founded Justice for Families. What’s happening right now?
Justice for Families is a national alliance of local organizations and families committed to ending the incarceration epidemic. We’re founded and run by parents and families who have experienced the justice system and are working to end mass criminalization.
Right now, we’re working with juvenile justice agencies to meaningfully engage with families and communities. We’re using our perspectives, as families, to create tools and strategies that bring the voices of families into all decision making on juvenile justice, at every level.