NEW ORLEANS — Transforming the city's problem-plagued juvenile jail was a top priority for Mayor LaToya Cantrell when she took office in 2018.
Instead, the lockup – known as the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center – is struggling.
Some employees point to the fact that Cantrell's hand-picked director, Kyshun Webster, was increasingly absent from the job. An investigation by WWL-TV has now revealed that the city granted Webster permission to operate his Kenner insurance business – Compassion Society Benefits – while simultaneously running the jail.
Webster’s job-juggling act took place even though staffing at the lockup remains at a crisis-level low point and police are routinely called to handle emergencies.
Juvenile detention is a tough business everywhere, but many employees at the New Orleans lockup considered Webster and his executive team to be a big part of the problem.
The City's progressive philosophy on juvenile justice means only the most violent offenders ever get locked up, giving the lockup an ever-present hard edge.
That was evident on Jan. 12 when four teenage boys escaped and promptly carjacked a woman in the neighborhood before police SWAT teams could round them up.
“One youth accessed a swipe card and allowed the other youths out of their cells,” Webster said the press briefing, one of his last public appearances before he took a still-unexplained leave of absence on March 18.
Escapes and trouble ensues
While Webster answered questions about the escape, he did not mention a near escape days earlier until asked by WWL-TV.
“There was a disturbance and we had youth who again tried to attempt an escape,” Webster offered.
A New Orleans police report shows the full story: nine police units responded had to respond to a gang fight. During the brawl, one juvenile tried to escape.
That's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Other police reports compiled along with our partners at The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate show police being called to the lockup for many different disturbances since the start of 2021.
In January 2021, an inmate found with a pistol. The next month, battery of an employee and criminal damage totaling nearly $13,000 dollars.
In July, an aggravated rape report.
Several instances of indecent behavior.
Current and former employees say there are many other offenses don't get reported to the police.
“Spit on you. Throw feces and urine and all of that stuff on the staff,” said Renell Lowe, a former juvenile counselor at JJIC.
“I had to seek therapy behind this job. It was that troubling,” one former employee said.
“Violence, sharp objects, people getting stabbed, people getting bit, spat on, excrement put on them,” another said.
The challenges in dealing with teenagers accused of violence lead many employees to quit, sometimes within days
Former employee sues
Currently only about half of the center's 100 jobs are filled. Records obtained by WWL-TV show alarming turnover: 131 employees since the beginning of 2019, 79 voluntarily. Another 50 were fired, the records show.
One former employee who was let go is pursuing a lawsuit against Webster and the city. John Otis was hired at JJIC in April 2021 to be the lockup’s head of security.
Attorney Stephanie Dovalina, who is representing Otis, said her client is a seasoned law enforcement officer with experience at Orleans Parish Prison, HANO and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office before he was hired at JJIC.
Otis lasted only five months before being fired by Webster. Since he hadn't completed his probationary period, he had no civil service protection. Otis claims in his lawsuit that reporting violations by other employees, like sleeping on the job or bringing in cell phones against jail policy, led to retaliation against him. His lawsuit against Webster and the city claims multiple violations of his rights.
The central claim in Otis' lawsuit revolves around an escape attempt thwarted by Otis. A police report of the near-escape shows Otis, his face obscured, standing in a blood-splattered work shirt.
“One of the juveniles grabbed a very heavy police radio,” Dovalina said. “He ended up throwing it at Mr. Otis and he ended up getting hit in the head. He had to have 21 stitches, suffered a concussion.”
Dovalina said not only did Otis have to drive himself to the hospital, he was “told that he would be fired if he tried to take time off,” the lawsuit states.
“He had to end up working 21 days straight after his injury,” Dovalina said.
The final insult, Dovalina said, was when Otis ordered new uniforms to replace the one ruined by his own blood. According to the lawsuit, that purchase somehow became grounds for firing Otis.
“It's just really ludicrous,” Dovalina said. “They should be trying to hold onto those good employees.”
Otis is just one of a parade of supervisors to come and go from JJIC.
Staff shortage continues
With Webster on leave, JJIC's acting Director Dichelle Williams and her boss, Emily Wolff, director of the city's Office of Youth and Families, appeared before a City Council criminal justice committee on April 12 to declare the jail's staff shortage an emergency. Enough of an emergency to ask the council to lift the long-standing rule that new employees must live in Orleans Parish.
“I'll say over and over again, recruitment and retention is the top priority for this agency right now,” Wolff told the committee.
Williams testified at length about how difficult it is to get qualified candidates, and how some who are hired don't even last a day before quitting.
“When we give a summary of what the agency really is and what the position is and what the duties require, we lose candidates,” Williams told the council committee.
But statistics revealed previously by WWL-TV paint a different picture. Those numbers show that 869 applicants since 2019 successfully met all civil service requirements, but only 61 were hired. The station also revealed that 110 qualified candidates remain on the hiring list.
Renell Lowe, who previously worked as a counselor at the lockup, is one of them.
Lowe now works as a security guard at juvenile court, occupying an adjoining wing of the same complex. She said she was personally asked by Williams to apply to return to JJIC to help alleviate the staff shortages.
“They were actually running people who were qualified away,” Lowe said.
“I was like one of the top employees over there and up for supervisor. And I haven't got a call yet. So if you're so understaffed, my phone should have been ringing off the hook.”
Lowe said there are many other candidates just like her.
“A lot of people I know that's trying to go back over there,” she said. “And they have similar stories to what I'm telling you right now.”
Mayor Cantrell weighs in
We asked the City to answer our questions about the problems facing JJIC. We also requested an interview with Mayor Cantrell, but through a spokesman, she declined.
Cantrell broke her silence on Webster and the JJIC on Tuesday.
“I immediately go back four years ago when I became Mayor and the Juvenile Justice Center was truly on fire,” she said. “So, I had to get in very quickly and stand up interim leadership which then translated into permanent leader ship and that was found in Dr. Kyshun Webster . He recently tendered his resignation on Friday. I fully accepted that.”
A bit more information surfaced Tuesday about Webster’s mysterious absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act. After Webster was seen touring the Orleans Justice Center – the city’s adult jail – with newly sworn-in Sheriff Susan Hutson, WWL-TV asked Hutson about his role.
Hutson’s spokesman, Timothy David Ray, responded, “The Sheriff considers Dr. Webster a friend and a valued partner in the fight for criminal justice reform. He volunteered his expertise during her transition and she is very thankful for his help during that time. Beyond that, he has not been hired by her Administration at this time.”
The City has not announced a search process for a permanent replacement for Webster at JJIC.
One high-ranking former employee said that ultimately, the kids are the ones who suffer the most from JJIC's high turnover, staff shortages and lack of stability.
“Kids do not come out of there great,” said the employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution. “Look at all your carjackings. Look at what is going on in the city right now. They have come from JJIC.”