Residents want school, not prison

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Louisiana State Senator Donald R. Cravins, who wrote the legislation to shut down the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth, speaks outside the center Friday as Moses Williams, Northeast Louisiana Delta Community Development Corp. director, looks on. (Meredith Spencer The Vicksburg Post)

[6/5/04]TALLULAH Eleven young people dressed in caps and gowns shouted “Gov. Blanco, give us a future, not a prison!”

Across the street, new signs announcing the Steve Hoyle Rehabilitation Center were already greeting drivers on Louisiana 80.

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In a press conference that had the atmosphere of a tent revival at times, citizens from across Louisiana rallied to turn the just-closed Swanson Correctional Center for YouthMadison Parish Unit into an educational center.

The last inmates were transferred to other juvenile prisons or community-based programs Tuesday.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco said law and budget constraints mean Madison Unit will most likely become an adult prison.

“The state has a debt obligation to run the facility and the Department of Corrections is mandated to run the facility as an adult facility,” said Blanco spokesman Denise Bottcher, referring to the outstanding bonds which, Bottcher said, require a correctional facility to be on the site.

State Sen. Don Cravins, D-Lafayette, said the bond contract was not legal, so the state could get out of paying the bonds which will cost the state $3.4 million a year until 2012. After the state pays the bond debt, the property will be owned by the original private owners, TransAmerican Corp.

Louisiana’s bond rating would suffer if the state does not pay its debt, Bottcher said.

Blanco is following the law signed by previous Gov. Mike Foster, which mandated Swanson’s conversion into an adult prison, Bottcher said.

Cravins disputed that logic, saying “If that was the case, we’d never change a law in the state.”

A Senate bill authored by state Sen. C.D. Jones, D-Monroe, will make the 33-building Swanson campus into an educational center housing a community college, consolidated high school and community center.

The House of Representatives version of the bill will come before the Appropriations Committee next week, probably Wednesday, Jones said.

“This is going to be as big of a battle as it was to close (the prison), “Cravins said told the crowd of about 50, which included former Madison Unit prisoners.

Bottcher said Blanco would consider the bill, but Louisiana is already in debt. “It’s hard to develop new projects without money,” she said.

Just by closing the Tallulah facility and its $18 million annual budget, Cravins said, the state could get enough money to fund the educational center. Figures provided by a pro-educational center advocacy group say the state’s obligations would be $7 million. The rest of the estimated $27 million cost of the center, says the Louisiana Delta Coalition for Education and Economic Development, would come from federal, local and private funds.

New Orleans native Travis Scott said he was one of the longest-serving inhabitants at the prison, serving five years. Sent to Tallulah in 1997 for robbery and carjacking, Scott said he was beaten by guards his first day at the prison. He said he didn’t receive any more beatings after that but routinely witnessed other prisoners being abused. “That was, like, every day,” Scott said.

The prison did not rehabilitate him, Scott said. He wishes he had his GED, “anything that helped me get back to society,” he said. Although the prison’s school had a GED program, “they ain’t no school,” Scott said. “No teaching, no nothing. Anything goes.”

“This community has been engulfed and destroyed by this prison,” said Tallulah District 2 City Councilwoman Janet Clark’s voice. Her voice cracked and a few tears ran as she addressed the absent governor: “Gov. Blanco: You buy children a future, not a prison.”

Avis Brock, a founder of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children broke into song during her speech: “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.” The crowd joined Brock in completing the verse: “We gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching on to freedom’s way.”

The event was capped with a mock graduation of the proposed Delta Community College-Tallulah Campus, Class of 2006.

After the class marched to the front, the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” in the background, Jones gave a mock commencement address. “Prisons today are nothing more than contemporary slave camps,” Jones said.

Charles Krekelberg, an architect from the New Orleans-based design firm Concordia, showed a scale model and two posters of the proposed educational center design.

“You can’t see it now,” Krekelberg said, gesturing to the fence across the street, “but if the razor wire were removed, you would have a spectacular learning center.”