Inside the walls at Louisiana's Ware Youth Center, one of the state’s largest juvenile detention facilities, children have been trying to kill themselves with stunning regularity, the New York Times and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkeley journalism school report. There were at least 64 suicide attempts at Ware in 2019 and 2020, a rate higher than at any other youth facility in the state. Children have tied socks, towels and sheets around their necks. They have swallowed baby powder, screws, and fluid from an ice pack. Two tried to drown themselves. Escape attempts are surging: At least 91 children have tried to flee since the beginning of 2019, a little more than five percent of those held at Ware. In 2020, a girl told staff members that she was going to run away in hopes that the police would take her to “the big jail” rather than back to Ware. A second told staff members at Ware that she would rather be sent to a psychiatric hospital than spend another day there. Soon after, she tried to kill herself by leaping from a roof. The incidents have brought into sharp focus pervasive despair among youth that no one is going to rescue them from repeated acts of physical violence, sexual assault and psychological torment.
For years, Ware’s leaders have failed to report complaints of abuse, hired unqualified employees and disregarded state rules. There is no evidence that state regulators have ever fined or punished Ware, or threatened its contracts, even as inspectors have documented the same failings year after year. The Times/Berkeley investigation — based on more than 100 interviews with people previously held at Ware and current and former staff members, records and court documents, and hours of security footage —shows how a place meant to offer children care and rehabilitation descended into chaos and cruelty. Guards beat and choked their wards. Several forced children to endure sexual abuse as the price for phone privileges. They frequently maintained control by bribing children with food to assault other children. Some 42 people held at Ware over the last 25 years described being sexually abused by staff members. In all, 30 staff members sexually abused children at Ware; one of the accused, a longtime manager, still works there. Ex-prisoners said they had remained silent out of fear of retaliation or the understanding that others’ complaints had been brushed aside. “Basically, you can’t do nothing, you can’t go tell on them,” said Shakira Williams, who spent a year and a half at Ware. District Attorney Julie Jones, asked if the abuse reports gave her concerns about the safety of children at Ware, said, “We’re talking about armed robbers and murderers. And these girls haven’t even hit the age of 18 yet, some of them. Do I worry about their safety? No, I don’t. I think that they’re quite capable of taking care of themselves.”