Juvenile inmates swipe vehicle, spark police chase in prison escape

The escape was at least the fifth of the year from the troubled youth lockup, underscoring the chronic staffing woes that have endangered both COs and inmates

By Jim Mustian
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

MONROE, La. — In a sensational jailbreak, two teenage inmates escaped from Louisiana's juvenile prison in Monroe early Monday, stole a state vehicle and drove it more than 40 miles south to the town of Olla, where they were captured following a manhunt that involved police dogs, a helicopter and lawmen on horseback.

A third inmate also escaped from the Swanson Center for Youth but was taken into custody not far from the facility, authorities said.

The escape was at least the fifth of the year from the troubled youth lockup, underscoring the chronic staffing woes that have increasingly endangered both correctional officers and inmates.

The three escapees also were involved in a violent jailbreak from the same facility last month that sent a CO to a Shreveport hospital with serious injuries, the state Office of Juvenile Justice said. That CO since has been released from the hospital, said Beth Touchet-Morgan, an OJJ spokeswoman.

Swanson officials notified Louisiana State Police of Monday's escape about 12:35 a.m.

Two 16-year-old inmates stole a state pickup and headed south toward Alexandria.

The third inmate, 17-year-old Latrell Anderson, of Shreveport, was arrested by Monroe police less than 20 minutes after he escaped the prison. He was booked with simple escape.

Deputies spotted the other two teens in neighboring Caldwell Parish before 1 a.m., heading south on U.S. 165, said Chief Jack McKeithen of the Caldwell Parish Sheriff's Office.

They tried to stop the pickup, McKeithen said, but the teens sped into LaSalle Parish, where authorities used a spike strip to flatten the tires.

"The vehicle rolled into Olla near the Highway Barn, where it became disabled," LaSalle Parish Sheriff Scott Franklin posted in a Facebook message.

One of the teens was captired after the vehicle came to a stop, but the other — shirtless and wearing orange prison pants — darted into a nearby neighborhood, where he hid for several hours.

As a helicopter hovered overhead, dozens of law enforcement officers canvassed the area using tracking dogs and warning residents to remain in their homes. At least two officers responded on horseback.

"For all practical purposes, we had a small army put together in a matter of 20 minutes," said John Stott, the Olla police chief, in a telephone interview.

Franklin, the LaSalle sheriff, took to Facebook to urge residents to lock their doors and report any suspicious sightings.

More than an hour after daybreak, the final escapee was found inside a travel trailer about five blocks from where he bailed out of the pickup, Stott said.

"He was cornered," the chief said. "We had surrounded the area."

Initial police advisories indicated that the youths may have gotten hold of a firearm during the escape, but a weapon had not been recovered as of Monday afternoon.

It was not clear how the teens obtained the keys to the state vehicle.

Stott said the teen arrested in the travel trailer confessed to "cutting" the fence at Swanson to escape from the facility. He faces counts of simple burglary and aggravated flight from a police officer in LaSalle Parish.

"We're a pretty sleepy town," Stott said. "This is not something that this town is used to, and I hope we don't have to get used to it."

While such a disturbance is rare in Olla, a town of about 1,400, the community surrounding the Swanson facility in south Monroe, has become increasingly accustomed to teenage inmates on the loose.

The escape Monday was at least the fifth of 2018 and the latest indication that the state lacks sufficient resources to secure its juvenile prisons.

Turnover and staffing shortages are so acute that the state has repeatedly run afoul of federal laws intended to protect inmates from jailhouse assault. And the COs who do report to work have been repeatedly overpowered by violent youths.

In previous escapes, the teens have stolen keys from correctional officers and then bolted for the perimeter, where they used dormitory mattresses to scale exterior razor-wire fences. An Office of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman said last month that officials were making a series of security enhancements to Swanson's perimeter.

"There is definitely an issue with this facility," said state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe. She said she plans to meet with state correctional officials soon to address the repeated escapes from Swanson.

Juvenile justice officials have blamed the dysfunction at Swanson in part on rampant turnover, staffing shortages and budgetary constraints. Funding shortfalls also have prevented the Office of Juvenile Justice from opening a brand-new 72-bed youth prison that is sitting vacant in Avoyelles Parish.

A recent legislative audit found that staffing levels at Swanson have been frequently out of compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 law that requires a 1 to 8 staff to youth ratio during waking hours and a 1 to 16 staff to youth ratio during sleeping hours.

The same audit cited a 53 percent increase in "fights per youth" in Louisiana's juvenile prisons between 2013 and 2017 — a spike that occurred even as the state has significantly reduced the number of juvenile offenders it houses behind bars.

The string of escapes also comes as the state's juvenile justice system prepares to absorb an influx of 17-year-old offenders who will no longer be tried as adults — the result of the 2016 "raise the age" law.

©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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