SECTION: THE PULSE OF AMERICA/REFORM/JENA, LA.; Pg. 84
HEADLINE: Where The Market Fails
BYLINE: Nadya Labi
Ah, privatization. How the invisible hand of competition can force efficiency on the laggard ways of government. Well, that was the way it was supposed to go
for Louisiana's juvenile-prison system. But it didn't work out, and now even some Republicans, the champions of privatization, are backing away from the
idea. "The profit motive works well in some places," says Republican Governor Mike Foster. "I don't think it works well in prisons."
The case of Jena helps explain why Foster has come to this conclusion. A month after the Justice Department sued Louisiana in 1998 for inadequate care of its jailed youth, a privately owned juvenile-detention facility opened there. Here was the state's chance to prove it could run a prison right, even if it meant contracting with an outside company--the Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp. Instead a Justice Department investigation of Jena prompted the state to transfer all the inmates out of there last May.
The probe alleged that Jena's boys suffered more than 100 serious traumatic physical injuries in a two-month period. And in a separate incident, a
17-year-old who wore a colostomy bag as a result of gunshot wounds was hospitalized after an altercation with a guard. The nurse at the prison's infirmary noted that about 5 in. of the boy's intestines were in the colostomy bag. After a subsequent encounter, the youth wrote, "[A] Sgt. came to me and said to me put shirt in pants, and I told him that I couldn't and he...put me to the ground and told me to lay face down on the ground. And I told the Sgt. that I couldn't that I have on a bag, and he went put me to the ground. He came with his knee in my stomach." In its defense, Wackenhut Corrections says the boy had a number of disciplinary proceedings against him that year and that the distension might have been exacerbated by an oversize opening of the bag.
With hindsight, the head of Louisiana's prisons questions whether the state gave Wackenhut Corrections enough money to run a professional operation.
Louisiana paid the company a per diem of $ 70 for each juvenile at the 276-bed facility. "We paid them approximately the same per diem that our own facilities
cost," says corrections secretary Richard Stalder. "But they had to recover not only their operating but their capital cost. Seventy dollars a day is awfully close." Juveniles are twice as expensive as adults because they require more rehabilitative and educational programs.
The Justice Department contended that in the first 13 1/2 months of Jena's
operation, 600 men and women were hired to fill about 180 positions, a gross turnover rate of more than 300%. Staff shortages led to what the department
characterized as excessive overtime and lapses in hiring. One security officer had a previous record of aggravated assault and cruelty to juveniles. But finding properly trained people to work in Louisiana's prisons is tough. The state's public corrections officers, who receive starting salaries just below $ 15,000, are the lowest paid in America. Recruiting is even harder in the private sector, where benefits tend to be less generous across the nation. Still, Wackenhut Corrections president Wayne Calabrese insists, "we had more staff to inmates than the state facilities themselves were required to have."
In Jena, a poor rural community, the corrections and prison populations were particularly mismatched. "You've got a Billy Bob high school-educated white guy trying to provide services and treatment to very tough, emotionally disturbed African-American kids," says David Utter, co-counsel for Louisiana's jailed youth in a class action against the state. Others argue that Wackenhut
Corrections got a raw deal compared to the other four public juvenile facilities. "The reality is that [they] took their worst offenders and sent them to Jena," says John Cooksey, the Republican Congressman who represents Jena's district.
It is too easy to blame privatization--or Wackenhut Corrections--for all Jena's ills. The fact is that the very nature of the deal--shared responsibility between the state and a private company--makes it hard for authorities to react in tandem to the crises of a juvenile-corrections system. Wackenhut Corrections wants to move on. The company may sell the buildings at Jena, which now stand empty, or fill them anew with adult prisoners.