NEW ORLEANS — Kyshun Webster was named director of the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, New Orleans’ juvenile jail, in October 2018. By all accounts, he took over a place racked by scandal, violence and high turnover by both management and staff, much of it going back years to when the lockup was called the Youth Study Center.
After being on an unspecified leave of absence since March 18, Webster’s long-anticipated resignation was finally announced Monday.
Now, as rumors swirl that Webster may surface in another high-profile city job, a look back at his tenure at JJIC director reveals that he was often absent from that job and, according to employees, may have made a troubled lockup even worse.
Running Qualified People Away
About a dozen current and former employees interviewed by WWL-TV point to Webster as one of the main reasons for employee dissatisfaction, leading to resignations by some employees and rock-bottom morale among those who have stayed.
“They were actually running people who were qualified away,” said former juvenile counselor Renell Lowe.
Webster cited staff shortages as one of the reasons for the Jan. 12 escape of four detainees who immediately carjacked a woman and drove off, sending police SWAT teams all over the city to re-capture the youngsters.
“This incident was also a consequence of staff shortages, which have also been exacerbated by COVID,” Webster said at news briefing.
The JJIC employees who spoke to WWL-TV offered a visceral picture of the very real challenges faced by those who work with troubled, and usually violent, kids at the lockup.
But those longstanding issues were not mentioned nearly as often as the challenges of working under Webster.
One former supervisor spoke anonymously because he said he fears retaliation at his new job.
“Morale was horrible. It was downhill every day. Like I said, I would go to work and I'd be afraid to get out of that car,” he said.
Yet another employee who asked to remain anonymous quit recently, saying she was fed up with management.
“Some people are just ran off. And that's the honest truth,” she said. “Just run off from the job.”
Things were bad, got worse
Webster’s briefing following the Jan. 12 escape were among his last public comments before taking leave on March 18. At the briefing he volunteered that the lockup had only 47 of its budgeted 103 employees.
But according to the employee accounts and backed up by city records, the lack of staffing and high turnover is not only a problem he inherited, but seems to have exacerbated.
Civil service records show that since January 2019, 50 employees were fired under Webster. Another 79 left voluntarily.
Employees say they felt like they were walking on eggshells, both dealing with the kids as well as Webster and his executive staff.
“Anybody who tried to go against him, you're no longer working. You no longer have a job,” one former employee said. “That's how we lost a lot of people.”
'Everybody was afraid for their job'
The employee said that after a couple of his own run-ins with Webster, he too was fired for a seemingly trivial matter.
“He was so intimidating. Everybody was afraid of their job,” he said, describing how Webster berated him on multiple occasions, often using profanity.
There's a twist to employees' interactions with Webster. They say that during his three-and-a-half year tenure, they saw him less and less often, except when people were being disciplined, fired or during emergencies.
One reason for Webster's apparent time away from JJIC may be the “Outside Employer Authorization Form” that the city granted. The form, date June 22, 2020, granted Webster permission to devote three to five hours a week to a Kenner insurance company called Compassion Society Benefits. Records show Webster founded and incorporated the company in 2016.
To get information about Webster's attendance at JJIC, WWL-TV filed a public records request with the city asking for written logs and data from electronic key cards reflecting Webster’s work hours.
The city said it could not provide such records. We also asked for an interview with Mayor LaToya Cantrell her allowing Webster to take a chunk of each week to run an outside business, but through a spokesman she declined.
We reached out to Webster, but he has not responded.
Employees confirm that Webster was an infrequent presence at JJIC.
“You can go a week or two at a time of not seeing him,” one employee said.
“He was never there. Never present,” said the former supervisor who was fired by Webster. “He was barely there. Because he, from my understanding, it's because he had his other businesses.”
The employees say Webster was open about Compassion Society Benefits. In fact, Webster’s “Linked In” page lists him as the founder and director of the company that he incorporated in 2016.
Webster was even featured on WWL-TV in 2020 talking about how his insurance business covers family leave due to COVID, but not a word about his work for the city.
On his Linked In page, Webster also included his twelve years as the CEO of Operation Reach, a non-profit education program for youngsters that melted down in scandal after a federal audit found nearly $1 million in grant money unaccounted for.
An expose by the Lens investigative website in 2012 found extravagant personal spending by Webster, on top of paying himself a salary of $130,000 a year.
The scathing audit appears to have been a death blow. State and local funding agencies yanked their grants. The Louisiana secretary of state’s office shows Operation Reach's status listed as “inactive” since 2014.
We tried to ask Cantrell whether she knew about Webster's controversy when she hired him, but once again, she declined.
As for JJIC, there's no mention of it on Webster's Linked In page, despite more than three years as director at a salary that now stands at $143,412.
Council President Helena Moreno reacted to WWL-TV’s findings.
“How did they allow this to go on for so long?” Moreno asked. “He's very prominent, very prominent, on a website for another company as the top executive. It doesn't make sense.”
Moreno said Webster’s job-juggling is especially troubling given the recent troubles at JJIC, problems so severe that on March 18, supervision of the lockup was changed from the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families to the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security.
“This is a juvenile facility that you should be running” Moreno said. “You should be there every single day. So where's the accountability?”
Moreno and the City Council also have been looking for Webster, scheduling him to appear before them to answer questions about the JJIC and its staffing crisis. But after weeks of trying to get him to appear before them, the council was told that Webster took leave from his job, with no return date.
At a criminal justice committee meeting on April 12, three other city administrators laid out the case to open up applications to people outside of Orleans Parish – waiving a so-called residency rule –but the proposal was shot down.
Council Vice-President J.P. Morrell said Webster's absence was one of the reasons he couldn't vote for the waiver.
“For him not to be present to comment on how things happened under his tenure there is very troubling,” Morrell said at the meeting. “It's my intention to ask the chairman and the president to subpoena Mr. Webster.
WWL-TV is still seeking Webster's attendance records. But even if that effort is unsuccessful, one small line buried in a recent report by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General reveals an ongoing investigation that may eventually provide answers.
Under “Administrative Investigations,” the OIG’s December monthly report states, “Issued a Request for Documents to the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center regarding building access records.”