- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

BAKER, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice quietly closed the state prison for young offenders in Baker and moved its 76 inmates early Sunday to centers in Monroe and near New Orleans, telling only a few officials beforehand.

The Jetson Center for Youth near Baton Rouge was obsolete and the other facilities are better suited for the safety of youth and staff and for the therapeutic model of youth corrections, Deputy Secretary Mary Livers said in a news release.

For safety reasons, only a handful of officials knew about the move ahead of time, office spokeswoman Jerel Giarrusso said in an email. For the same reason, she said, “We brought staff to Jetson from each of our offices and facilities throughout the state to assist in the transfer and escort the buses to Bridge City and Swanson.”

Jetson was designed in the 1940s. Its dormitories don’t allow for appropriate supervision, and it’s hard to monitor and control youth and staff because the campus is so big - though Jetson was using only a small part of the several hundred acres, according to OJJ.

Louisiana had long been criticized as a state that locked up young prisoners without training them for life on the outside when the Legislature restructured the system in 2003, removing it from the Department of Corrections and making it a cabinet-level agency.

A program designed in 2004 with help from the state of Missouri and the Annie E. Casey Foundation focuses on therapy and counseling, teaching social skills and problem-solving techniques, according to the office. Youth work and are housed in small groups, with dorms reduced from an average of 35 to 50 teens to 12 to 14 in each unit.

Giarrusso did not know the ages of the youth held at Jetson. The office can provide services for youths ages 12-20, and those in “secure care” average 16 or 17 years old, she said.

Livers said most of Jetson’s 154 employees will be offered a chance to work at other juvenile justice facilities.

Those include Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, the recently opened satellite Swanson center 30 miles away in Columbia, and Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans. The office, part of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, is about to break ground for Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie. Twenty-four girls are held at Ware Youth Center in Coushatta, Red River Parish.

The other units have more than enough space for the 350 or so boys, officials said.

Livers said some advocates and parents may worry that the youths moved from Jetson are too far from their families for visits.

“We will go the extra mile and make an extra effort to ensure that family engagement continues to be a part of the treatment process for our youth,” she said. “We realize that transportation and scheduling for visitation may be an issue for some families, and we will accommodate special visit requests if needed. In addition, if transportation to the facilities is an issue, our Probation and Parole staff will assist in transporting families for visits.”

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