San Francisco Bay View, Sept 19, 2007
An update of a story originaly appearing in Human Rights Watch and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Jena, Louisiana – Jena, the little town of 3,000 located about four hours north of New Orleans, where thousands of people are headed from all over the U.S. to a Sept. 20 rally for the young men known as the Jena 6, used to be best known for its notorious prison.
Called Jena Juvenile Justice Center when Wackenhut opened it in 1998, it promised counselors and teachers with college degrees to help young people turn their lives around. But in 2000, it was closed after a federal lawsuit revealed that youth were regularly being raped, brutalized and humiliated.
Expressing shock, the judge said, “The way this facility operates or has operated in the recent past is that young people are treated as if they walk on all fours.” The infirmary logged 100 serious traumatic injuries in less than two months – a rate of two a day.
Some teenagers became so distraught they slit their wrists on the razor wire that surrounded the prison. Is it any wonder – considering that Jena was probably the home of most of the prison personnel – that this is the town where injustice against the Jena 6 has shocked the world?
The prison was reopened in September 2005 to house prisoners evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. Pretrial detainees were sent to Jena from Jefferson Parish Prison just outside New Orleans. Like the teenage prisoners housed there before them, treatment of these men by the guards in Jena amounted to nothing less than torture.
Interviews conducted with them Oct. 4, 2005, by Human Rights Watch and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) revealed widespread claims of abuse. Every detainee but one of the 23 interviewed reported that he had been hit or kicked by the prison staff.
The detainees said that correctional officers at Jena slapped, punched, beat and kicked detainees and sprayed them unnecessarily and repeatedly with pepper spray. The detainees, primarily African-Americans, also described degrading treatment and racist language by the Louisiana state correctional officers, who were primarily white.
“LDF has worked for decades in Louisiana and believes that the alleged abuse at Jena reflects the larger crisis in the state’s criminal justice system,” said Vanita Gupta, attorney for LDF. “The racism and violence that Jena detainees have described should have no place in any prison.”
The following day, Human Rights Watch and LDF lawyers interviewed Major Brad Rogers, the state correctional official in charge of day-to-day operations at the facility. They were not able to interview the warden, Richard Thompson. Rogers insisted that there had been no excessive use of force at the facility and that the staff were all “trained professionals.” However, the interviews of detainees taken by the two groups contradict his statements.
“Katrina created a crisis for state corrections officials, but that’s not an excuse for staff to beat detainees and kick them in the head,” said Corinne Carey, researcher for Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program. “Detainees told us they felt they were being treated like animals. They were frightened and some were even crying. One said, ‘I don’t know what they’ll do to me once y’all leave here.'”
Detainees told Human Rights Watch and LDF that shortly after their arrival at Jena, officers pulled them from their beds in the middle of the night and they were forced to remain face down on the floor for up to eight hours. The detainees said the officers would hit and kick them if they moved or raised their heads. One detainee who turned his head after falling asleep reported that one guard kicked him in the face to wake him up, and then told him to put his face back down.
Rogers confirmed that all the detainees at Jena had been made to lie down on the ground as a security measure because detainees in one dorm had started “yelling … and jumping up and down and threatening to burn the place down.”
The detainees reported that officers at Jena hit and kicked them when they broke prison rules. For example, Human Rights Watch and LDF interviewed two detainees who had been in a fight with each other. After officers broke up the fight and handcuffed the detainees, they carried one of them to an isolation cell.
On arrival, the officials dropped him to the ground and punched him on the side and in the face. As he was lying with his mouth and nose bleeding, the officers ordered him to lick up his blood from the floor. The other detainee in the fight reported that officers had punched his chest and ribs and slapped him in the face after handcuffing him.
Another detainee said that officers kicked him in the head and slammed his face against a wall because he did not get out of bed quickly enough one morning. “This is a living nightmare for me,” he said. “I know this isn’t legal.”
Rogers confirmed detainees’ reports that they were sometimes ordered to kneel nose-to-wall as a security measure. Detainees claim they were kept kneeling for hours at a stretch, which Rogers denied. Detainees also said correctional officers struck them on the head if they moved.
Officers forcibly shaved the head of every detainee at Jena who had been sent there because of Hurricane Katrina. (After Hurricane Rita, more evacuated detainees were brought to Jena, but their heads were not shaved.) Shaving the heads of detainees is not a standard corrections procedure in Louisiana, but Rogers said the detainees from the New Orleans area were “filthy.” Yet he also admitted that the detainees’ heads were shaved after they had been able to take showers and use soap.
Detainees also reported that officers consistently used racial and sexual epithets against them. One reported a guard saying, “I can’t stand none of you motherfuckers from New Orleans.” Another guard grabbed a detainee by the hair (before his head was shaved) and called him a “mop-head motherfucker.”
Other terms reportedly used by the officers include “monkeys,” “bitches” and “pussy-ass motherfuckers.” Several detainees also reported an incident in which detainees were told to line-up, place their hands behind their heads and press their groin against the buttocks of the detainee in front of them. An officer taunted them saying: “Hard dicks to soft ass! I know y’all are getting hard, because I am.”
Initially, when Jena was reopened, it was staffed with Louisiana correctional officers. Shortly afterwards, the state requested assistance in staffing the facility, and officers came from New York City’s Rikers Island jail to help.
Rogers said that the facility was operating “remarkably smoothly” given the circumstances under which it reopened. However, correctional officers reported chaotic conditions and an unprepared, overwhelmed staff. Detainees claim that Louisiana officers were primarily responsible for their abuse.
Rogers acknowledged that there are no grievance procedures in place at Jena. Detainees repeatedly requested grievance forms to make complaints about their treatment but never received any. In one instance, a guard handed a detainee a sheet of toilet paper in response to his request for a form. According to Rogers, detainees can come to him with their grievances. He said he had “spoken [to detainees] about grievances and I have corrected the problems we have had.”
One inmate described having been with a group of detainees and asking the warden when they were going to be able to contact their families. According to the detainee, the warden responded, “Motherfucker, do I look like I care?” The warden ordered an officer to “lock this stupid motherfucker up,” and he was placed in isolation.
Detainees complained about the lack of medical care at the facility and said that they had been unable to get medications, including antidepressant and antipsychotic medications, which they had previously been prescribed. According to Rogers, a doctor had begun coming to the facility once a week, two nurses were there from 9 to 5 and medications were being provided by the end of September.
Detainees evacuated to Jena because of Hurricane Katrina had no contact with the outside for the first two weeks they were there. They were not allowed to use the telephone until shortly before they were interviewed.
After two weeks, they had been given writing materials to send letters to their families, who had no idea where they were, if they were safe or whether they had survived the storm. But detainees reported that the correctional officers read their letters and refused to mail those that contained complaints about their treatment at Jena. One detainee said an officer ripped up his letter in front of him. None of the detainees had yet seen their attorneys.
On Oct. 1, 2005, LDF contacted Louisiana state legislators and Superintendent of State Police Colonel Henry Whitehorn about the abuse allegations at Jena. Two days later, on Oct. 3, Human Rights Watch called on Richard Stalder, the head of Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections, to conduct an investigation into allegations of abuse at Jena. Stalder had been elected in August 2004 to a two-year term as president of the national Association of State Correctional Administrators.
Following their interviews with detainees at Jena, Human Rights Watch and the LDF decided to call for an independent and impartial investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice into the conduct of the state corrections staff at Jena. In August 2006, the FBI confirmed that an investigation had been opened.
Federal investigations of racist human rights violations in Jena seem to have a habit of generating more heat than light. CNN reports this week, “There is no link between the nooses hung by white students outside a Louisiana high school and the alleged beating of a white student by black teens, according to the U.S. attorney who reviewed investigations into the incidents.” Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, apparently came to that conclusion because the events occurred three months apart.
This story, which originally appeared at hrw.org and naacpldf.org, was updated by Bay View staff.