Scrambling to respond to a wave of violence and escapes in juvenile lockups, Louisiana state officials last summer hastily opened a new facility they believed would bring order to their troubled facilities. They locked teens they considered troublemakers—boys as young as 14—in solitary confinement around the clock in the new facility, forcing some to sleep on the floor in the dark and shackling them when they left their cells to shower. They provided no education to the boys, in violation of state and federal law. And they kept news of the harsh new facility so quiet that juvenile court judges and the boys’ parents and attorneys were stunned to learn of the new facility months after it opened.
When reporters Annie Waldman, Beth Schwartzapfel and Erin Einhorn first heard about the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville late last year, they set out to expose the conditions there. Collaborating over four months, they contacted dozens of families and lawyers to find teens who had been housed there and reached out to scores of current and former staff members in search of sources who could describe life in this lockup. Using public records requests, they obtained hundreds of pages of incident reports, emergency response logs, emails and education records to describe life inside a facility where Louisiana’s most vulnerable youth, including boys with serious mental illness, were treated like violent criminals, given little more than meals slid through slots in their doors.
The conditions they documented were so harsh that one expert said the facility’s operations amounted to “child abuse.”
The result was a powerfully written story that ran on the websites of NBC News, ProPublica and The Marshall Project. The multi-platform digital package included leaked photos, audio and videos from inside the facility that documented the mistreatment of the teens, as well as a segment on NBC News NOW, NBC’s streaming channel. To reach younger and other traditionally underserved audiences, The Marshall Project broke down the investigation on Instagram.
Beyond documenting the mistreatment of teens, the story demonstrated that this harsh approach to confinement was ineffective. Documents showed that teens used the brief moments of human contact when their meals arrived to fling feces and urine at guards. Two teens harmed themselves so badly they required medical attention. Some destroyed beds and shattered light fixtures, using the metal shards to hack holes in the cinder block walls large enough for them to escape.
The story, published in March, brought the conditions at St. Martinville into the open and triggered a debate about solitary confinement for juveniles in Louisiana. Officials from the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice were questioned during a legislative hearing about the conditions at St. Martinville and assured the public that they were working to bring educational and other services to the facility. Ultimately, the state juvenile justice director threw his support behind a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement in Louisiana’s juvenile facilities, enabling it to win support from the legislature.
You could see the clear collaboration of partners in this project, the impact and purpose it had in the community.