For the past few years, the fate of the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie was a hot topic of discussion.
Almost everyone who expressed an opinion was in favor of the juvenile detention center being built in Bunkie. When the state withheld funding for the center after it was built, almost everyone called for the release of funds so the center could start hiring staff and serving the public.
When three juveniles escaped from the juvenile detention facility in September, there was some concerns raised by a few Bunkie area citizens.
They were assured that steps were being put in place to ensure such an incident would not happen again.
Earlier this month, seven boys escaped. There has been a bit more social media “outrage” about this incident.
Now, nobody expects Super Max level security at a center for juvenile delinquents. The current issue is that the facility is not yet at full capacity and has already had 10 of its residents leave the compound.
There hasn’t been a clamor for the juvenile center to be shuttered. It would probably take an Attica-style riot for that to happen.
The ACY is still the newest economic development in the Bunkie area. It was courted and welcomed.
When funding was delayed, elected and civic leaders lobbied long and hard for funding to be approved.
The issue of concern is that these youthful offenders are so brazen to attempt an escape and, for some reason, their attempts tend to be successful.
I have asked for an accounting of what type of offenders are housed at ACY. I have been told that offenders sentenced to “secure detention” are considered to be “a threat.” If they weren’t, they would have been assigned to a non-secure facility, like a group home or placed in their parents’ responsibility.
I have witnessed communities divide into rival camps when a prison was seeking to locate in their area. It follows the same process as a landfill or big, belching smokestack factory.
Many say, “Come on in,” focusing on the economic boost and employment such a facility brings with it.
Others say they agree for the need, but “not in my backyard.”
The argument against prisons focuses on safety concerns -- especially the likelihood of escapes.
When just about everyone in the Bunkie area was singing the praises of OJJ and the juvenile detention center, surely they realized that escape is always a risk.
Minimizing that risk is OJJ’s responsibility.
It is too early to label the Bunkie center as an “insecure secure care” facility, but one more such incident before the end of the year could start heads shaking and tongues wagging.
If visible steps are taken to shore up the security at the site, I believe the public will give the state Office of Juvenile Justice the benefit of the doubt and support those efforts.
I believe these two mass escapes will serve as a wake-up call that even a bird in a golden cage still yearns to spread its wings and fly.
Just having a new, modern “home” for the youthful offenders is not incentive enough to keep them within the fences of the complex.
Telling them this is a much better place for them than the previous juvenile detention centers would be like telling the caged bird that the shiny, golden cage is much better than the one you used to put your birds in.
Frankly, they just don’t care.
The state cannot make its inmates -- whether they’re 16 or 60 -- “want” to stay behind bars, walls and fences. It needs to convince them they “must” stay behind those bars, walls and fences -- and that there are unpleasant consequences if they don’t.
At this time, we just have to watch to see if OJJ has found a way to improve its perimeter security and to discourage its residents from seeking an early departure.
If it can do that, the center will be a much-appreciated neighbor and integral element in the local economy.
If it can’t, and the escapes continue, there is sure to be “cross words” exchanged between the neighbors.
As Robert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
He wasn’t talking about prisons, but it still applies.