Officials unsure how long state will control Jena juvenile center
By JOE GYAN JR. New Orleans bureau
NEW ORLEANS -- A Louisiana corrections official and representatives of Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp. told a juvenile court judge Tuesday they don�t know how long the state�s temporary takeover of the embattled Jena Juvenile Justice Center will last.
But the Wackenhut executives said they fully expect to regain control of the 276-bed prison, where two near-riots occurred since it opened in December 1998.
The state seized control of the prison from owner/operator Wackenhut on April 6 in the midst of negotiations to settle civil rights lawsuits targeting the Jena facility and four other juvenile prisons, including one in Baton Rouge. The state and Wackenhut agreed last week to enact sweeping reforms at the Jena center in a temporary settlement of the suits.
Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty removed seven boys from the Jena center last month after federal reports alleged physical abuse of inmates at the for-profit prison. Doherty also visited the facility.
Doherty held a hearing Tuesday to decide whether to let Wackenhut be a party to hearings to decide the future placement of the boys he removed from the Jena prison. In the end, the judge said that the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections -- not Wackenhut -- can call and question witnesses at the hearings, but that Wackenhut can attend the hearings and assist the state.
"We have to look at whose interests are being protected in these proceedings.
"It�s the child�s, not the corporation�s," Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana attorney Sarah Ottinger argued to Doherty before he issued his ruling.
Despite a request from the state�s attorneys, Doherty refused to close Tuesday�s hearing to the media. During the three-hour hearing, Doherty pressed a state corrections official and two Wackenhut representatives on the duration of the state�s temporary takeover of the Jena prison.
"I don�t know how long it�s going to be," George White, deputy assistant corrections secretary, told the judge.
"Is it fair to say that no date has been set?" Doherty asked.
"I�m not aware of any date," White answered, adding that he doesn�t think the state takeover will be for a "protracted period."
Juvenile Justice Project director David Utter, who represents one of the boys Doherty removed from the Jena center, asked White if Wackenhut will regain operational control of the center after the state completes its probe.
"I don�t know," White replied.
Wackenhut Vice President Donald Houston and Amber Martin, director of contract compliance for Wackenhut�s eastern region, both testified that they expect Wackenhut will once again run the prison at some point.
"I think we are, yes," Martin said.
"When we�re going to take back over, those discussions haven�t started."
Martin stressed that the agreement between the state and Wackenhut for the state to take interim operational control of the Jena prison is "all verbal" and that Wackenhut�s contract is still valid.
"There�s been no revocation of the contract at all," she said. "It is a verbal agreement. The contract still holds."
Houston said he "invited" the state to assume interim operational control of the Jena center "because there were some investigations that needed to be conducted."
Utter said reports by U.S. Justice Department consultants are "the reason they took over." The reports alleged extreme violence at the Jena center.
Houston said the state�s temporary takeover does not have an "ending date" or "exit date." He said Wackenhut will regain operational control "whenever they (the state) conclude what they�re doing now."
White said the Jena prison is under the control of Warden Mike Roberts.
"Ninety-five percent of the employees at the facility are Wackenhut employees," Houston said. "They report to the warden." Martin said more than 100 Wackenhut employees work at the prison.
"To what extent is the Department of Corrections operating the facility?" Doherty asked.
"We�re calling the shots," White replied.
"The operational decisions are currently being made by the state," Houston said.
"Yes, we�re in operational control, but Wackenhut is there with us," said state corrections attorney Martha Morgan.
Utter asked Houston who is liable if one of the juveniles at the Jena center breaks an arm.
"It is a question we�ve had, and we�ve discussed it with the state," Houston said. "I can�t tell you where that is now."
Houston also said any Wackenhut employee under investigation for alleged abuse at the Jena prison won�t have any contact with the inmates until the probe is completed.
"That�s our policy," he said.
Martin said the state pays Wackenhut $70 per day per bed at the Jena center, whether the bed is filled or not.
"Wackenhut is being paid for 276 beds," she said, acknowledging that, before the state took control of the center, negotiations began between the state and Wackenhut over the pay issue.