[News] Education Versus Incarceration

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 14 16:37:15 EST 2007


Education Versus Incarceration
A small Louisiana town struggles to shut down a prison and build a school
by Jordan Flaherty; November 14, 2007

Tallulah is a small town in Northeastern 
Louisiana, one of the poorest regions in the 
US.  It is about 90 miles from the now-legendary 
town of Jena, and like Jena it is a town with a 
large youth prison that was closed after 
allegations of abuse and brutality.  Also like 
Jena, residents of Tallulah are involved in a 
modern civil rights struggle.  Their town has 
become a battleground in the national debate on 
whether to spend money to educate or incarcerate poor, mostly Black, youth.

On a recent Saturday afternoon I visited Hayward 
Fair, a civil rights movement veteran from 
Tallulah.  Mr. Fair is one of the founders of 
People United for Education and Action, a 
grassroots organization dedicated to transforming 
the local prison (now called Steve Hoyle 
Rehabilitation Center and primarily holding 
adults convicted of nonviolent offenses) into a 
"success center" which would give classes and 
training.  If they succeed in their struggle it 
will be the first time in this country - where 
for decades funding for education has been cut 
while prisons have been built – that a prison has 
been shut down and replaced by a school, a 
groundbreaking reversal of the nationwide trend.

When I met with Mr. Fair he was going door to 
door with activists from the grassroots 
organizations Families and Friends of Louisiana's 
Incarcerated Children, Southern Center for Human 
Rights and Safe Streets Strong Communities.  At 
nearly seventy years old, with muscular arms and 
a shaved head, he shows no sign of slowing down. 
"I've been doing a little community organizing," 
he explained, modestly. As he went from house to 
house, it seemed everyone in the city knew and 
respected him, and everyone had an opinion about 
both the prison and what Tallulah 
needs.  Wielding respect from both his age and 
his reputation for fighting for justice locally, 
Fair was bringing a vision of a new Tallulah to 
residents who have seen a town die around them.

Speaking in a gravelly voice and a deliberate 
step weighted with experience, Mr. Fair led me to 
the site of the prison.  "When the prison came to 
town most people weren't even aware of what it 
was going to be," he said. "It was something that 
produced jobs and people needed jobs so there 
wasn't no real resistance to it."  But now, the 
local economy is devastated, and Fair blames the 
prison, at least in part.  "It's killing the 
economy of the area, in my opinion," he claims. 
"Prisons only bring money to the owners."

When you enter the city limits, the first thing 
you see after you pass the "Welcome to Tallulah" 
sign is the prison, a large complex of 33 
buildings surrounded by fence and barbed 
wire.  Standing nearby, Fair gestures down the 
street.  "We're about a block and a half from the 
junior high school, we're about 5 blocks from the 
senior high school.  Our children have to walk 
out from the classroom and the next thing they 
see is all these bars and towers and all these 
big buildings. It had a psychological effect on 
the children and the adults as well.  It really 
just devastated this whole city."  For several 
years, the people of Tallulah, aligned with 
Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated 
Children, have fought this struggle, to not just 
close the local prison, but to open something 
different in its place, to demonstrate that small 
rural towns don't have to turn to prisons for jobs.

Tallulah, which is seventy percent Black, used to 
be a town that Black folks would travel from all 
around the region to visit.  To demonstrate his 
point, Fair took me to the downtown, to street of 
shuttered storefronts, with virtually no people 
out.  "On a day like this, on a Saturday evening, 
you could hardly walk down the streets of 
Tallulah, you'd be bumping into people.  You had 
all businesses on this end of town," he gestured 
across the street.  "All the way down, nothing 
but businesses; grocery stores, cafes, clothing 
stores, barrooms, you name it. The town was wide 
open, stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Now Fair says, the town is a very different 
place.  "We are working trying to bring our image 
back up, but we are now labeled as a prison 
town."  As in much of the country, prisons are a 
big business in rural Louisiana, and this part of 
the state has several. "You go east you got a 
youth prison. West down here you got this 
facility, you go south you got two prisons right 
outside the city limits." Tallulah is now far 
removed from its former glory.  Young people move 
away as soon as they're able.  "We lose maybe 70% 
of our young people," he says.  "Why should they 
stay?  There's no opportunities here for them."

The prison in Tallulah has a long and notorious 
reputation. Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone 
visited in 1998, and incarcerated kids broke onto 
a roof to shout out complaints about their 
treatment. The New York Times wrote several 
articles that same year, including a front page 
report calling Tallulah the worst youth prison in 
the US, and the US Justice Department sued the 
state of Louisiana over the systematic abuse at 
the prison, where even the warden said, "it 
seemed everybody had a perforated eardrum or a broken nose."

New Orleans-based journalist Katy Reckdahl 
chronicled the beginnings of the struggle to 
transform this prison in an important series of 
articles several years ago.  But now the effort 
is nearing its final days.  Activists have lined 
up local and statewide support for this important 
transition, from the community level to meetings 
with the Governor, to support of national allies 
such as the Center for Third World Organizing and 
the Southern Center for Human Rights.  With a new 
Governor on the way, the next few weeks will be 
crucial for this struggle, and for the fate of 
Tallulah.  If the people of Tallulah win, it will 
be an important victory for people everywhere 
concerned about issues of race, education, and criminal justice.

Mr. Fair is proud of the civil rights history of 
Tallulah, which is located not far from where the 
Deacons for Defense, a pioneering Black armed 
self-defense group active during the civil rights 
movement, was formed. "We had some people here 
that went off to world war two, then they come 
back here and were second class citizens," he 
explained. "They had to ride in the back of the 
bus. They said were not going to put up with 
this.  So we started a movement ourselves, to eliminate that."

Fair experienced intense white resistance to 
basic rights for Black folks. "At one point the 
Klan met about three miles outside of town and 
had a rally and they was going to come into town 
that evening. They thought they were going to run 
all the Blacks out of town," Fair says.  But 
resistance in the town was strong. "When they 
came into town the streets was crowded. People 
were walking stiff legged, with their shotguns 
down under their pants.  We told the police were 
going to take care of ourselves; we don't need 
you to take care of us.  They thought they were 
going to scare somebody, but nobody here was afraid of them."

I asked Fair how Tallulah fits into a wider 
struggle.  "All the eyes of the world is focused 
on the Jena Six. But every small community in the 
south, and in the north, has its Jena Six.  Maybe 
you can't visualize it or maybe you don't want to 
visualize it, but this is not just small rural 
towns.  Look at New Orleans, during the 
storm.  When the people was trying to cross the 
bridge to get out of the flood, there were people 
on the other side, armed, that would not let them 
cross. In the rest of the nation people are being 
treated the same way.  Chicago, New York, it don't matter where you are."

Before leaving, I asked Fair what kept him in the 
struggle.  "I ain't struggling, I'm free," he 
answered, explaining that this struggle is not 
about him. "I'm gonna do what I know is right, 
and I don't care who you are. I see the young 
people in the community that need help. That's 
what keeps me going. If you see something and you 
feel it aint right, don't say they ought to 
change it, get in there, roll your sleeves up and 
say lets change it. That's the only way. You 
gotta keep a cool head and do the thing that's 
right. When you know right and fight for it, you're gonna win."

Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn 
Magazine.  He was the first journalist from 
outside of northern Louisiana to write about the 
case of the Jena Six. You can see more reporting 
on the Jena Six case online at 

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