Those comments don't sit well with Thornton, who himself wore the prison's dark-blue uniform for four years. "Our town has gotten a reputation of being child molesters and abusers," he says, "and that is just not the case."
Even in Tallulah, feelings about the prison were mixed from the start. Local attorney Sam Thomas says that a prison would not have been his first choice to improve the local economy. "But now it's here," he says, "and if you close it, you lose 300 jobs and increase our poverty rate."
Says fellow attorney Raymond Cannon, whose wife, a teacher, works at the facility: "Whenever you mention a prison, the usual negative thoughts come into the mind of a person. But the need for jobs was just that desperate."
You end up facing tradeoffs like this, Cannon says, when you live in one of the poorest places in America.
Tallulah, pop. 9,000, sits in Louisiana's far northeast corner, in the delta. Fast-food joints and gas stations, built to serve traffic from Interstate Highway 20, light up the town's fringes. From there, it's only a few minutes' drive to Brushy Bayou, which once fed to the Mississippi and in 1862 saw boats of Union soldiers land here and torch the local telegraph office and Confederate supply depot.
The town's original reason for being -- the railroad -- still runs on a ridge through the center of town parallel to the now-shuttered main street. Nearby is Bloom's Arcade, said to have been the first covered shopping mall in America. It last housed a methadone clinic.
Across from the railroad tracks, a Confederate soldier stands on a high pedestal, overlooking the town's grand old courthouse. Inside are offices for Madison Parish, one of the poorest counties in the entire nation. In 2001, more than eight out of 10 parish schoolchildren were eligible for free or reduced lunches. The conditions are even worse in Tallulah itself, where almost half of the townspeople live below the poverty level and 40 percent of adults over the age of 25 lack a high-school diploma.
Until recently, very few people had even heard of Tallulah. Then, in early 1994, residents here learned that a trio of Gov. Edwin Edwards' associates -- including Tallulah native James R. Brown -- were planning to build and operate a 700-bed juvenile prison on the west edge of town. There was no community input, say Janet Clark and Gloria Hayden, now city councilwomen. "Nothing was put to the public," Clark says. "It was, 'It's here, deal with it.'"
In December 1994, one month after the facility opened, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola declared a state of emergency there, "due to riots and an inability of staff to control and protect youth." Criticism of the facility began then and never ended, say prison employees. In 1995, there was a Human Rights Watch report; 1998 brought lawsuits from the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) and the U.S. Department of Justice.
In September 1999, after 18 correctional officers walked off the job to protest their $6 hourly pay, the state took over and re-named the place Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish Unit. But to most people, the name remains simply "Tallulah." In the local phone book, it's still listed under the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth. Critics believe that nothing else has changed either.
"Tallulah has never been able to operate in a safe and effective manner, not since the first child transferred there in November 1994," says JJPL head David Utter. The facility is still violent, he says; it has never provided kids with necessary counseling and rehabilitation, and its remote location -- "400 miles from where most kids live" -- often means no contact with their families.
Utter and his colleagues are currently pursuing several allegations of abuse on the behalf of four former Tallulah inmates. The hearings began in mid-April in the Orleans Parish courtroom of juvenile court judge Mark Doherty. To members of the group Friends and Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, the proceedings are known as "Tallulah on Trial." At question is the 14th Amendment guarantee of safety and treatment. If the Tallulah facility violated those rights in that many cases, they say, then it should be considered unsafe and unconstitutional for any child.
Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, Sen. Donald Cravins, D-Arnaudville, says he has been "fighting like hell" for about eight years to shut down Tallulah. Now, the Louisiana senate and house have each passed their own version of a bill that, among other things, bars the use of the Tallulah facility for juveniles after 18 months' time. At the end of last week, the bills were up for another vote in their original chambers; if necessary, they will then go to conference committee.
The facility's days seem to be numbered. The DOC confirmed last week that staff members from the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson had begun making trips to Tallulah to determine whether the facility could be used for young adults.
Cannon watched closely the progress in Baton Rouge. He believes the bills went through with little regard for this town's economic future. To him, that's irresponsible. "The state should not move on and leave in its wake this kind of hurt," he says.
Near the Tallulah city limits, chain-link fences and razor wire
rise into the air, silhouetted against the clear blue sky. A sentry carrying a portable radio asks each driver to pop the trunk; she peers inside, then waves the car into the parking lot.
This is the youth facility that The New York Times in 1998 referred to as a place "so rife with brutality, cronyism and neglect that many legal experts say it is the worst in the nation." Things have changed, says assistant warden Robert Rachal. "From what it was when I got in here in December 1999, you'd never think it was the same place," he says.
On a springtime afternoon, Rachal and his fellow assistant warden Jerry Robinson lead a tour through the facility. Visible from the start are the beige-colored barracks with names like Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Foxtrot and Java. Nearby, in "the rec shed," a concrete slab with a roof, some teenage boys play basketball in the boot camp uniform -- green shirts and pants.
There are 76 young men in the boot camp and 153 in Units I and II, the other two areas of the prison. Boot camp kids are considered the most "reachable" by the staff here. They're often minor drug offenders and most will leave within 90 days. Units I and II are known to be rougher; they often contain kids transferred from other facilities because of bad behavior.
Inside, lanes of fenced-in sidewalk separate groups of buildings. Running atop every span of fence is the jagged silver Slinky of razor wire that's been a state requirement since 1993, when about 100 kids jumped the fence within a year's time at Jetson Correctional Center for Youth near Baton Rouge.
The facility's appearance alone is enough to irk youth advocates like Dr. Cecile Guin, who directs social-service research at Louisiana State University and has for 30 years interviewed inmates in this state. "Tallulah is a prison environment, an adult prison environment," Guin says. Surroundings like this, she believes, increase negative behavior, especially in adolescents. "If you raise kids in a penal environment, that's how they learn how to behave -- like prisoners," she says.
It's only one in a series of sore points between youth advocates and the Department of Corrections. "It really doesn't matter what it looks like from the outside, and people really need to stop saying that," counters Elijah Lewis, secretary of the Office of Youth Development, the department's juvenile division. "You cannot educate, you cannot rehabilitate a kid when you're chasing him through the community," he says.
Lewis would rather talk about one of his proudest achievements, Westside School, where staff teachers lead classes year-round from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, with a break for lunch. Here, Lewis says, 97 percent of the teachers are certified, compared to about 68 percent in Madison Parish itself. Locals say that discrepancy is no coincidence -- certified teachers left the local schools for Westside after they found that they could double their paycheck by teaching year-round here.
The typical Westside pupil hasn't had much success in school. About half of the students are in special ed; the average student tests at about the fifth-grade level, according to some teachers' estimates.
The main focus here is the GED. In the boot camp, where the kids are more apt to like school and be good students, the students pass at a much higher rate of about 95 percent. The numbers are much lower in Unit I, where there are fewer academically successful kids. There, about half of the kids pass the test. Even fewer pass in Unit II.
In the Unit II school, Tamla South teaches math the first three hours and oversees a GED lab in the afternoons. "The boys really like her," says a co-worker, and that's obvious upon entering the room. The young men are working industriously at the computer terminals, getting ready for an upcoming trip to nearby Rayville, where they'll take the GED test.
Students who have passed the GED no longer have to attend school, although some kids take classes in one of the two vocational buildings. Outside, in the school's garden, Rachal says, kids last year grew the biggest cantaloupe he'd ever seen. "It makes you feel good when a kid accomplishes something like that," says Robinson.
JJPL's David Utter is less impressed. "It doesn't matter how great the school is -- it's only six hours of their day," he says. "That leaves the kid open to random violence and mistreatment for 18 hours a day."
Most non-school hours are spent in the military-style dorms. On one side of the concrete floor are rows of steel bunk beds with foot lockers; on the other side are a few long tables and some steel urinals, toilets, showers and sinks. In the corner nearest the door are a TV, a boombox and the dorm's library -- a steel cabinet containing a few dozen books.
Up on the walls are video cameras and telephones. The round-the-clock cameras were installed a few years ago by court order. The phones, as a result of a later judicial order, allow kids to make collect calls to the state Project Zero Tolerance abuse hotline, the U.S. Department of Justice, and certain specified defense attorneys, including JJPL, which racks up an average phone bill of $1,000 per month for calls from facilities like Tallulah. Kids can also call home collect; their families pay about $5.50 for each 15-minute call.
A few doors down, one of the dorms has been converted into a rec room. "Every kid, no matter what his level, gets a chance to go to the Boys' Club," says Robinson. There, kids can watch a big-screen TV, shoot pool, and play ping-pong or table foosball. Sometimes there's even microwave popcorn.
Yet in the end, says David Utter, DOC Secretary Richard Stalder, his wardens can boast all they want about the school, the phones, the cameras and the vocational programs. These things were not done voluntarily, he asserts. "Every positive development that Stalder and Lewis talk about at Tallulah was shoved down their throats by the federal court."
Most often, each dorm holds between 40 and 50 kids. These are watched by two correctional officers at all times -- even when they're sleeping, changing clothes and showering. The observation can get a little too close at times, especially because half the guards are females just a few years older than the offenders. Within official disciplinary records, tickets for masturbation in the shower or in bed are not unusual.
DOC spokesperson Denise Bottcher says that the department is not aware of any substantiated claims of sexual activity between guards and offenders. Yet nearly everyone who has worked or stayed at Tallulah will tell you story after story about guards and inmates having sex.
The tour continues, heading toward the infirmary. There, in a walkway, a kid stands on top of a fence, his blaze-orange jumpsuit caught on the razor wire. He climbed on the fence from a nearby roof after running from gym class, says Robinson.
The kid yells down at the correctional officers below. "They're always prohibiting a nigger for nothin'," he shouts. Several minutes later, he climbs down and is put into handcuffs for his walk to Kentucky, the maximum-security lockdown unit where a youth can spend up to 23.5 consecutive hours in a small single cell. Utter says that JJPL has been hearing consistent reports about inmates placed in those rooms naked without a mattress on their bed. Lewis says they are not in the habit of doing that.
"That's something that's basically being overstated," he says.
"When I drive into northeast Louisiana, I feel like I'm going into another country
and another time -- an earlier place and an earlier time," says Ron Wimberley, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University who grew up in West Monroe, about 30 minutes' drive from Tallulah. Wimberley's expertise is the rural South and what's called the Black Belt, the crescent-shaped area that stretches from east Texas up the delta to southern Virginia.
The Black Belt is the largest expanse of poverty in the nation, and northeast Louisiana is one of the roughest areas. "These are parishes that have been at the bottom of the heap for two centuries now," says Wimberley.
The area was originally named for the color of its fertile soil, according to Up From Slavery, the 1901 autobiography of Booker T. Washington. That changed, especially after the Civil War when, Washington wrote, "the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense -- that is, to designate the counties where black people outnumber the white."
The Black Belt is not the new, metropolitan South -- it's not Raleigh, N.C., where Wimberley now lives. It's the old rural South, home to places like Tallulah. "Relative to other parts of the country, things are not changing as fast in these places," Wimberley says. "They're just small rural towns that are not making it."
The countryside around Tallulah is largely agricultural, planted with cotton, soybeans, corn and rice. There are wildlands, where panthers still roam and scream in the night. But much of the area is cropland, dotted with brightly colored boll weevil traps.
The town of Tallulah emerged on this landscape because of a sweetheart deal, literally. Back in the 1850s, a wealthy local widow flirted with a chief railroad engineer, who then agreed to map the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Mississippi railway line through part of her land. The widow then lost interest, and so the engineer named the resulting station for a former sweetheart, Tallulah.
Today, some townspeople feel similarly jilted, says Sam Thomas. The prison drained the school system by luring certified teachers away. It drained property owners too, he says, by devaluating the surrounding land. "No one wants to build houses around a prison," he says. Then it gave the town a stigma. "Once you get a prison," Thomas explains, "you can't attract anything else."
This is an age-old phenomena. Back in 1901, the New York town of Sing Sing changed its name to Ossining to avoid association with its notorious local prison. Yet today, there are many more rural prisons than ever, thanks to a skyrocketing prison population and a prison construction boom. Calvin Beale, a demographer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that, since 1980, 350 rural counties had been "sited" -- chosen as a prison site. Many of these prisons were courted by town leaders for economic reasons. As one New York lawmaker said, "When legislators say, 'Lock 'em up!' they often mean 'Lock 'em up in my district!'"
It seemed like a good match. Rural areas have the open land and unemployed workers that prisons need. And there's not much else in the way of economic development going into these towns, says Tracy Huling, who has studied rural prisons for years and in 1999 made a documentary titled Yes, In My Backyard about an upstate New York prison town.
Recently, Huling and others authored the Sentencing Project report Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Ecomonies in Rural America, which analyzed 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York, a leader in prison construction. The report was not good news for towns like Tallulah -- the findings indicated that prisons provide few economic benefits to their hosts. Many of the regular jobs went to people from other counties; the top jobs went to people transferred from other places. The report also found no impact on per capita income, unemployment or poverty rates. In addition, Huling says, there are also indications that the stress of prison work may lead to higher rates of divorce, alcoholism, substance abuse, violence and health problems in prison communities.
Some people would argue that a high-poverty area like Tallulah can't be choosy when it comes to job creation. Huling calls that the "let them eat SPAM" model of economic development. To this way of thinking, says Huling, "all rural communities are in such bad shape that you might as well put industries of last resort there -- the prisons, the nuclear power plants, the trash dumps, the waste incinerators."
Three months ago, Huling became the head of the National Resource Center on Prisons and Communities, an organization that helps community groups challenge a planned prison or prison expansion. Any opposition needs to be two-pronged, she says. "One is against a prison and the other is for a more positive alternative." She's currently assembling a team of economic development people to match up each area with industry that fits its strengths.
Within the past few years, says LSU sociologist Joachim Singelmann, the Tallulah area saw a good example of this, when the Avondale shipyard opened up a satellite location nearby. Singelmann conducted interviews with both the workers and the shipyard's human-resources people. The shipyard, he says, found the local workforce quite skilled and hired both workers and supervisors from the area. "For males in rural areas, welding is just something you learn growing up, so a lot of people had that experience," says Singelmann. Avondale got 1,400 applications for 200 jobs, he says, and reported that well over half of those applicants were very qualified.
Tallulah's options weren't always so limited, says Cannon. Growing up, the rhythms of the town came from the local sawmill, the Chicago Mill & Lumber Company. From 1939 until it closed in 1983, it operated on the very site where the juvenile prison is now.
"The mill was the employer in Madison Parish at that time," says Cannon. "I can remember as a child when the whistle would blow in town early in the morning, at seven, and you would see the menfolk and the women converge on the mill." Whistles blown at noon and 1 p.m. bracketed the lunch break; the four o'clock whistle meant quitting time.
Today, the old sawmill office sits inside the chain-link fences. It's been converted into a house for the prison warden, Hyam Guyton Jr. Huling has seen these sorts of transitions before, especially in Appalachia, where prisons have moved in to replace coal mines. "I very much believe," says Huling, "that industries create culture, particularly in small towns where they tend to dominate."
But different industries create different cultures, Thomas says. A sawmill, for instance, can attract a trucking company to transport lumber in and out. Its boards can be used to build houses in town.
"With a prison," says Thomas, "all you get is people to watch a prison. And if I have to go out there and watch a prisoner all day," he says, "doesn't that makes me a prisoner too?"