Juvenile Justice Program Slams New Orleans' Detention System

When Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Orleans Parish juvenile detention center, 15-year-old Eddie Fenceroy said he spent three days without anything to eat or drink, standing in sewage-filled water that reached past his hips.

"It had feces and stuff floating around in it, but some people drank it anyway because they were so thirsty," said Fenceroy, who spoke at a news conference held Tuesday by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.

The group released a study on conditions that juveniles encountered while imprisoned in New Orleans during Katrina, saying they highlight an already flawed system.

"It's been a truly terrible place for a long time," said Derwyn Bunton, the group's assistant director.

Even before Katrina, the group said, juveniles faced unsanitary conditions, inadequate education, poor medical services and violence at the hands of guards or fellow prisoners at the city's two juvenile facilities: the parish prison and the Youth Study Center.

Katrina only magnified the problems, Bunton said, noting that neither the city nor the prison had adequate evacuation plans for adult or juvenile detainees.

Youngsters from the center were evacuated to the parish prison, where 150 people under 17 were stranded after riding out the storm. The parish prison also houses adult prisoners.

The young prisoners eventually were evacuated to a nearby highway overpass, where they were held at gunpoint with adult prisoners, Bunton said.

In response to the report, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the parish prison, said he has pledged not to hold juveniles in the facility again. That would eliminate one problem for reformers, who believe juveniles should not be imprisoned with adults.

The group also is asking Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who's running against Nagin in the May 20 election, to fund alternatives to detention, improve the public defender system for young people and limit the population at the city-run detention center.

Nagin did not return a call for comment. A representative for Landrieu's campaign said he would meet immediately with people from every branch of the criminal justice system upon taking office as mayor.