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Voices From Tallulah 

Bert Bryant, a former high school and college teacher, is editor-publisher of the newspaper in town, the weekly Madison Parish Journal.

"What a lot of people don't understand is that this is the facility for the troublemakers in every other juvenile facility. So we've got the worst lot of all the juveniles. This is the "badd" bunch -- with two d's, the badd badd kids.

"We'd like to keep the facility for economic reasons, of course, to the point that the city has been in negotiations to buy it. Jobs here are hard to come by. There also has to be some type of punishment for these kids.

"I think that some legislators -- Senator Cravins is one of them -- would like to move this down to south Louisiana. When I did an editorial, I told them, 'If they'd like to close this prison, how many of these guys would he like to take in his home?' I don't like he enjoyed that too well.

"Personally, I think that the further away these children are from their families, the better they are. I realize it's a four-hour drive from New Orleans. But let me tell you something, if they had taken the time to spend with these kids coming up, they might not be having to make that four-hour drive."

Billy Thornton worked as a boot-camp commander at Tallulah from 1995 to 1999. He left to work at the new Avondale shipyard in the parish.

"I'm a conservative by nature, but I'm a realist. I don't mind putting some money into something that will turn around problem children. And those are problem children. They'd been through more in their short lives than what I'd been through, and I don't know that prison is the answer.

"At the time, we had nearly 600 offenders. On a visit, maybe 100 or 150 would have visitors. Their families would just forget about them. That has to be devastating to a child. One young man was happy about getting out, I found him sitting down in a corner because nobody wanted him, he had no place to go. He had to go to a group home because he had no place to live -- fourteen-and-a-half-year-old kid. It's tragic.

"I was sitting there one day, and a kid with just a lead pencil, nothing else, drew me. Honest to God, it looked just like me. It breaks my heart to see a kid with talent like that not being trained to use it.

"I get on my soapbox about kids. We don't need to raise kids to become wards of the state -- locked up in prison. One, it's not productive for the state or the nation. And two, it's costing us money.

"It's stressful. Ninety-nine percent of those correctional officers out there are good people -- I take my hat off to them. I'd still be there if I hadn't gotten this job."

Henry Herford Jr. has a master's degree plus 30 years classroom experience. From August 1999 to June 2002, he was a vocational teacher at Tallulah, teaching mostly horticulture. In April, Herford filed suit against the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, saying that the school, without reason, did not renew his contract.

"Many of these kids have never accomplished anything. They would plant seeds and they would be proud. They'd say, 'Yeah, I grew this; I'm growing cucumbers. Did it teach them to be farmers? No, it taught them responsibility.

"I'll tell you what -- I enjoyed working there more than any place I've ever worked. I've had a group of kids that were as good as any I've had in public school. But I've seen a kid in handcuffs have his feet kicked out from under him by a guard. That split his chin. Sometimes, guards would take kids into the restrooms and the kids would come out with bloody noses.

"I'm a hard-nosed Republican, and I was totally opposed to JJPL (Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana) at one time. I now think there's a great need for them. The state has definitely failed these kids. It's inhumane. Look at the fear in their eyes. If I had a son, I wouldn't want him in my house after being at Tallulah.

"One of these days I'm going to have to account for what I did about Tallulah. So I would say, 'Shut it down.'"

A 20-year-old man, released this past fall after serving three years at Tallulah, spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

"My mom died when I was nine months old. She didn't get proper care in jail. My dad got shot in the St. Thomas. I was five, but I still remember him. I stay with my auntie and my grandmother.

"First I was at Jetson (a juvenile facility near Baton Rouge). I liked it because I used to get visits every other Sunday. They ain't coming to Tallulah. It's too far. Jetson also had things better under control. At Tallulah, they'd be up there hitting you. I saw a lieutenant bust a guy's head open with a walkie-talkie. The only way they'd hit you at Jetson was if they had to. And at Jetson, you see a counselor everyday. At Tallulah, once in a blue moon.

"Look at it this way -- either you're going to get raped at Tallulah or else you're going to be fighting every day. Most of the guys up there were cut-throat. It's a bad campus.

"There was a lot of women up there having sex with the boys. They was boys their age. A guy by my house got a guard pregnant up there. She bought him a car.

"A guard will pay two packs of cigarettes or some weed for a 'hit,' to get another kid to fight you. I'd estimate that four out of five fights are hits. Kids got into it, but not as much as people think.

"Where I was living in the St. Thomas project, they was wild, killing people. They say God puts you in a place for a reason. I think God probably put me there in Tallulah so that I wouldn't get killed."

click to enlarge "One of these days I'm going to have to account for - what I did about Tallulah." -- former Tallulah - vocational teacher Henry Herford Jr.
  • "One of these days I'm going to have to account for what I did about Tallulah." -- former Tallulah vocational teacher Henry Herford Jr.
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