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After breakouts, riot, Louisiana youth jail to get big security upgrade

The city-parish will use $2 million to install as many as 50 metal security doors throughout the facility, as well as upgrade the security camera system

By Paul Cobler
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE — Baton Rouge’s aging Juvenile Detention Center, which has been the focus of growing criticism after a riot and high profile escapes, will get new security doors and other safety improvements, parish officials said Thursday.

The city-parish will use $2 million to install as many as 50 metal security doors throughout the facility, as well as upgrade the security camera system and the system that allows officers to buzz in and out of different units in the building, city-parish spokesman Mark Armstrong said.

East Baton Rouge Parish’s Metro Council approved the funds on Wednesday within a $48 million final package of money from the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress’ coronavirus relief bill that was passed last year.

“These upgrades were necessary and the American Rescue Plan gave us an opportunity to make these upgrades,” Armstrong said. “This is a really good shot in the arm for that facility.”

The 70-year-old detention center saw two escapes last year in which a total of seven youths broke out of the facility on Veterans Memorial Boulevard near Metro Airport.

In February, three boys threatened staff members and ripped out ceiling tiles during a two-hour ruckus where nobody was injured. One month later, three teens were hospitalized after they were involved in a brawl at the facility.

The incidents prompted District Attorney Hillar Moore to reiterate his previous calls for the jail to be torn down and rebuilt to modern standards.

Moore still supports the construction of a new juvenile facility but said the spending is necessary because of the antiquated state of the jail and the safety risks it poses.

Rev. Alexis Anderson, a local prison reform advocate, questioned the spending of one-time funding on a facility that officials want to tear down when the money could be spent elsewhere.

“We keep pushing these multimillion dollar ideas, but we should be talking about how we keep these children out of these facilities,” said Anderson, executive director PREACH, a nonprofit that specializes in re-entry after incarceration. “That is supposed to be the goal here. ... Throwing a couple dollars at what everybody sees is a dilapidated building is not going to fix the problem.”

Moore acknowledged it would be preferable to build a new jail and save the money, but he said the safety concerns at the jail are too urgent. It will be years before money can be secured for a new jail, he said, and the parish would risk the safety of the youth and staff if it waited that long.

“I think the mayor and the council are in a dilemma because just think about how much a lawsuit could cost them,” Moore said. “We’re just in a really tough position and this is the safest decision we can make.”

Along with the $2 million for the juvenile detention center, a further $1.2 million in ARPA funds will be spent on the similarly-aging East Baton Rouge Parish Prison for facility improvements like new HVAC units.

The funding package was created by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome by looking at needs across the parish that needed to be addressed quickly or have been outstanding for a long time, Armstrong said.

“These are upgrades that are going to increase safety, and that’s what we are in the business of — mitigating incidents,” Armstrong said. “You’re always going to have more needs than resources, and we had to be very judicious about the way we used that money.”

The trouble at the Baton Rouge facility is part of larger turmoil in Louisiana’s youth prison system.

There have been breakouts and violence at other parish-run juvenile jails, and several rural sheriffs and district attorneys have said they have no place to put young people accused of crimes. Louisiana had been sending some young detainees to Alabama jails, but the state stopped taking them after a riot at a prison there.

Meanwhile, in the state-run juvenile jails, dozens of youth have escaped from a facility in Bridge City this year. In response, state leaders have planned to reopen the infamous Jetson Center for Youth in Baker and send some juveniles to a facility on the grounds of the state penitentiary at Angola.