The Advocate--Online, February 8, 1998

Brutal hasing ritual at juvenile boot camp, officials blink

By Vicki Ferstel

According to a version from some juvenile offenders, "Going to Vietnam" was a brutal rite of initiation to the military-style boot camp at Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth.

According to a version from TCCY officers and other juvenile offenders, "Going to Vietnam" was an appropriate exercise.

The incident, according to the juveniles’ version, consisted of forcing the juvenile offenders to exercise in a hot, steam-filled barracks until they fainted or vomited while guards punched and shoved any slackers.

While the incident apparently was not as abusive as the juvenile offenders first reported, it did result in the demotion of a TCCY investigating officer who failed to promptly document the incident.

A series of documents filed in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge — where Judge Frank Polozola oversees the juvenile center under a long-standing Louisiana prison lawsuit consent decree — reveal some of the pitfalls inherent in investigating claims of abuse in corrections facilities.

The U.S. Justice Department, which is investigating Louisiana’s juvenile corrections facilities for possible civil rights violations, has stepped into the on-going federal consent-decree court proceedings via friend-of-the court filings.

Donald W. DeVore, a U.S. Department of Justice consultant, first documented the juveniles’ "Going to Vietnam" allegations in an October 1997 report of his visit to Tallulah, 54 miles east of Monroe.

DeVore said the juveniles told him TCCY officers ordered them to exercise while fully dressed in winter jackets in an 80-degree, steam-filled barracks.

"Some youth were punched and shoved throughout this process. Others reported they fainted; most experienced abdominal cramping and vomiting," DeVore wrote.

"I was disturbed to learn that supervisors and administrative staff were entirely unaware that this incident had occurred," DeVore wrote. "Without much effort on my part and in full view of guards, youth reported many instances of additional abusive practices."

TCCY Warden David Bonnette could not substantiate DeVore’s findings, according to a Nov. 20 report by court-appointed prison expert John P. Whitley.

Whitley’s reports show his apparent inclination to believe Bonnette, credited by Whitley and the attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and Louisiana’s prison inmates, for remarkable improvements to the troubled center since he left Louisiana State Penitentiary to bring order to the private facility.

Bonnette became TCCY’s warden in September and is now working for the private, for-profit firm Trans-American Development Associates Inc., which the state pays for each juvenile it houses.

In early December, Major Ted Price, a Project Zero Tolerance investigator, further examined the incident and other allegations of abuse at TCCY, Whitley wrote in a subsequent report.

The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections established Project Zero Tolerance after reports of widespread abuse at TCCY and the state’s public juvenile correctional centers in Baton Rouge, Bridge City (near Westwego) and Monroe.

According to Whitley’s report, Price verified that an exercise called "Going to Vietnam" occurred, but could not confirm if it was abusive.

Price and other TCCY officials tried to recreate the alleged conditions by shutting the barracks windows and opening the hot-water taps. A pre-set thermostat made it impossible for them to overheat the barracks. Smoke-detectors that would have been tripped by high humidity never went off, Whitley reported.

Juveniles told Price no one was hit or fainted during the exercise and they didn’t report the incident because they didn’t consider it abusive, Whitley wrote.

U.S. Department of Justice civil rights attorneys — fighting Trans-American and the state’s request to expand TCCY’s population — continued to press the court about "Going to Vietnam."

Justice Department attorneys Judith C. Preston and Iris Goldschmidt reported in a December court filing that only three of the eight officers Price interviewed admitted knowledge of the exercise even though a supervising officer acknowledged using it twice as a training or motivational aid.

The Justice Department attorneys claimed Price was not pleased with TCCY’s investigation of the incident.

The lack of a credible investigation by TCCY officials also disturbed Whitley.

"I feel there is something odd about this case," he wrote in a Jan. 8 report to U.S. District Court Judge Frank Polozola.

Whitley questioned a TCCY investigator about why he had not obtained information about the incident even though others had.

The investigator claimed he had paperwork proving he had acquired the information and agreed to show it to Whitley the next day, the prisons expert wrote in his January court report.

The TCCY investigator never showed up and did not return to work until after Whitley left Tallulah. Whitley learned later the investigator had no paperwork on the incident.

"I explained to Warden Bonnette that if his investigators could not find any information on a simple case, it would cause people to wonder if other investigations were being conducted appropriately, and if the results were accurate," Whitley wrote.

Bill Roberts, the attorney for TCCY owners Trans-American, said the officer was demoted and is no longer involved in investigations.

"The only way we can function is if we tell the truth," Roberts said.

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