Juveniles in adult jail prompts calls for change

Published 1:09 am Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The three juveniles that were recently arrested on aggravated rape charges and assigned to the Washington Parish Jail while they awaited trial as adults have all been transferred to the Florida Parishes juvenile detention facility.

The 15 and 16 year olds had reportedly been housed with the adult inmates in accordance with the law, based on their ages and the magnitude of the crimes with which they are charged.

But, while jails in surrounding areas contain rooms or even entire wings where inmates can be segregated for their own safety and that of others, there is no space for isolation in the crowded and outdated Washington Parish Jail, according to Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Jeff Boehm.

And, although none of the latest batch of youthful offenders was hurt while in with the general population of adult inmates, there is a need, he said.

Joel Miller, a jailer under Sheriff Duane Blair’s administration, agreed.

“There were a couple of kids who robbed and shot a lady on Columbia Street,” he said. “They ended up out at the jail.”

Miller said he watched out for the boys, but an incident occurred while he was gone one day.

“They were raped,” he said. “That was the first time I cried on the job.”

Boehm was not surprised, although he said the Sheriff Randy Seal administration had not been faced with juveniles in the jail prior to the three alleged rapists.

“It hasn’t happened at all since we’ve been here,” he said. “It’s very rare that a judge rules to have a juvenile tried as an adult. But when it’s a heinous crime and they’re old enough that’s what the law says, so it surely had to happen here. I know in surrounding parishes this has happened, and it will in the future.”

Jefferson, Orleans, St. Tammany and other nearby parishes have all expanded and modernized their jails, and all have isolation areas, Boehm said. But while they are regularly updated, the Washington Parish Jail remains stuck in the ‘80s, he said.

“This jail was built in 1988,” Boehm said. “We are so overcrowded that we use every crook and cranny to fit people in. We’ve had to put bunks in the day room. We don’t have space for isolation areas.”

The segregation spaces would protect more than juvenile offenders. Inmates with mental health issues and others that could be in danger of retaliation and are now transferred to other facilities could be kept apart from the general population for overall safety, he said.

The addition of segregation areas is just one of many widespread updates needed in the 25-year-old facility, and the updates could be profitable, Boehm said.

Currently, the state Department of Corrections houses its prisoners in the parish jail for only as long as it takes to get them transferred out after they are convicted and become state prisoners.

“The DOC pays us $24.39 per prisoner per day,” Boehm said. “Sheriff Seal talked to them, and they told him that if our facility pased their criteria they would house prisoners here long term. That would subsidize the jail.”

For now, the WPSO is doing what it can with what it has.

“We work really hard to push parish work release so we don’t put a strain on the jail,” Boehm said. “A lot of people here have minor crimes, non-violent petty crimes, so they qualify for work release. The violent prisoners don’t get released.”

And prisoners are “shipped to other agencies which are very good to us” when it is deemed necessary for their safety, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office has no option other than to do what it’s told by the courts, Boehm said.

“We’re just the keeper,” he said. “We have no control. And the judges have to do what the law says.”

The deputy chief sat in the new WPSO Bogalusa headquarters, which the Sheriff’s Office recently fashioned out of the first floor space in the Masonic Lodge building. He put out his hands and looked around.

“Look what we did here with just a little bit of money,” Boehm said. “We relieved a lot of pressure on the Franklinton office, and we save money with this office.

“With a new jail, if we could ever do it, we could save money, too. It will pay its way. And a new jail would help keep the parish safe.”