NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Responding to reports of beatings by guards and vicious fights and rapes among inmates, the federal government asked a judge to intervene immediately in the operation of a juvenile prison.
The Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in an effort to force the operator of the privately run Jena Juvenile Justice Center to take immediate steps to improve the facility.
The agency's request for emergency relief seeks an end to the use of corporal punishment and gas grenades and limits on the use of chemical restraints and isolation.
``We're taking this action on behalf of young people in this facility who cannot help or protect themselves,'' said Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.
The agency also asked U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola to include the Jena prison in its November 1998 lawsuit accusing the state of failing to provide adequate care for more than 1,700 juvenile prisoners.
Polozola had not set a hearing on any of the government's motions Thursday.
Officials with Wackenhut Corrections Corp. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., the juvenile prison's operator, has said reported problems at the facility have been exaggerated.
Wackenhut officials said in a statement Thursday they are working to improve operations, adding that the company ``is providing a constitutionally sound, safe and secure facility'' for juvenile inmates.
The new lawsuit, filed in Baton Rouge, echoes a February report by the Justice Department, which found that guards at the 276-bed facility use excessive force and that prisoners often get into fights over things such as food, clothes and shoes.
Some inmates repeatedly mutilate themselves so they will be transferred to the prison's medical unit and avoid being pressured for food or sex by other prisoners, the report said.
The report stemmed from a visit in January to the facility, which opened in 1998.
The Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, which had been the state's only other private facility, was taken over by the state last year after a series of scathing Justice Department reports highlighted similar conditions.