Justice Department Finds Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Violates the Constitution By Incarcerating People Beyond Their Release Dates
Today, the Justice Department announced that its civil rights lawsuit involving the Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center in Houma, Louisiana, has resulted in improved conditions for the youth confined in the facility, and it asked the federal court to dismiss the case. Reforms Terrebonne Parish undertook over the past three years resulted in increased protections to prevent sexual abuse of youth by staff; reduce the use of isolation, inappropriate use of force and restraints by staff; to reduce physical abuse of youth by other youth; and to reduce suicide and other self-harming behavior.
In 2011, the department notified Terrebonne Parish officials that conditions at the detention center violated the constitutional rights of confined youth. Later that year, the department and Terrebonne Parish officials reached a settlement agreement to implement 43 specific substantive remedial measures to reform conditions at the facility. The parties appointed an independent monitor who closely monitored reform efforts and provided technical assistance to facility officials.
Although the settlement agreement pre-dated the Attorney General’s finalization of the National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape (PREA Standards), the required remedial measures incorporated several provisions eventually set forth in those Standards. For example, Terrebonne Parish began complying with PREA’s minimum staffing ratio requirements, ensuring that unannounced supervisory rounds were periodically conducted, established a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse, conducted post-incident reviews, ensured that all allegations of abuse were promptly investigated and referred to appropriate external investigative agencies, ensured that staff found to be violating agency policies were subject to formal discipline and trained all staff on sexual abuse identification and prevention practices.
In addition to remedial measures designed to eliminate sexual abuse of youth within the facility, the settlement also required several remedial measures to increase protections against suicide and other self-harming behavior, including a reduction in the facility’s over-reliance on isolation. For example, the settlement prohibited the routine use of isolation rooms for youth on suicide precautions, prohibited the use of isolation for all youth except where youth pose an imminent threat to themselves or others (or in rare cases where less severe disciplinary measures have proven ineffective), prohibited the use of any disciplinary isolation longer than 72 hours except in extraordinary circumstances and ensured that any use of isolation be accompanied by strict safeguards such as frequent youth welfare checks and frequent visits by clinicians. During the remedial action period, the facility proactively implemented an effective incentive-based behavior management program that rewarded youth for positive and pro-social behavior. In addition, the facility implemented and trained staff on Safe Crisis Management – a program for preventing and responding to disruptive behavior by youth. Implementation of these programs substantially reduced the frequency of serious incidents at the facility, and enabled facility-leadership to eliminate the use of sanctioned disciplinary isolation – an outcome that exceeded settlement agreement requirements.
In the spring of 2014, the monitor issued her fifth compliance report indicating that Terrebonne Parish had achieved substantial compliance with all required remedial measures in the settlement agreement. The department concurs with the monitor’s assessment.
During the course of the department’s investigation, including the enforcement period, Terrebonne Parish officials and the facility director have remained highly cooperative and steadfast in their commitment to improving conditions of confinement in the facility.
“We commend Terrebonne Parish for its commitment to protecting youth held in custody,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division. “These improvements will help to ensure the safety and security of all youth in the facility in a sustainable manner.”
“Rehabilitation of the district’s youth is the principal goal of juvenile justice and we are pleased that Terrebonne Parish has been diligent in remedying its facility,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth A. Polite for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “These changes will help foster an environment where our at-risk youth can exit the juvenile justice system ready to positively contribute to their communities.”
The department initiated this investigation under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which gives the department authority to seek a remedy for a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the constitutional or federal statutory rights of youth in juvenile justice institutions. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt.