When David Utter, Shannon Wight and Gabriella Celeste opened the doors to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in 1997, they had no way of knowing that their work would ignite a statewide juvenile justice movement only a few years later. Their bold move to file a class action suit on behalf of children incarcerated in Tallulah put them into direct contact with children and families with devastating stories. The lawyers began working to improve conditions inside the prisons.
At the same time, parents and grandparents of children suffering in Louisiana’s youth prisons were calling the Juvenile Justice Project. Gina Womack, office administrator at that time, spent her time fielding calls from confused and scared parents needing support, as well as angry parents demanding something be done about the system that was abusing their children and tearing apart their families. Ideas and energy began to brew to take the struggle to another level.
FFLIC started up in 2000 when a few parents came together in Ms. Earnestine Williams’ home in Baton Rouge to share stories of outrage and fear, and to support one another in advocating for their children who were really caught up in Louisiana’s brutal and ineffective juvenile justice system.
“We were tired of the phone calls about broken jaws and trips to the hospital; we were furious at how far we had to travel to see our own children; we were frustrated at the defense attorneys who were too busy to meet with our children before trial; we were sick of being told that we are bad parents and that our children were beyond help!”
FFLIC had several meetings in various locations across the state. After trying a few venues, FFLIC decided to settle in New Orleans, build that chapter, and then replicate across the state.
“Parents wanted do something about the problem – something larger than just get help for their child. They wanted to change the system so that no one’s child suffered what theirs had suffered,” says Womack. And their voices were precisely what the struggle had been missing – the voices and first-hand stories of parents and children who had been victims of Louisiana’s juvenile justice system who were now demanding change.
Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) made their public debut in September of 2001 when they organized the “Mock Jazz Funeral,” a march that adapted a New Orleans tradition to mourn the lost freedom and departing dreams of their children. More than 150 people marched, and brass bands played while chanting parents and children led the way to Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. The funeral’s double meaning soon became clear. Parents wanted more than the reform that the lawsuits had envisioned: they wanted the death of the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth (TCCY). FFLIC was born and the “Close Tallulah Now!” Campaign became a reality.
Since its inception, parents and advocates have participated in numerous media events to get the word out about what was going on. Parents held the mock jazz funeral; participated in a Senate Hearing on May 7th, 2002 still calling for the closure of TCCY; participated in juvenile justice forums around the state; and held “Close Tallulah” screenings in New Orleans, Lake Charles, Lafayette and Shreveport to inform the parents in those cities of what was going on and how they could get involved.
In 2003, FFLIC continued to pressure the legislature and in May 2003, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act (Act 1225) was passed to overhaul the juvenile justice system and close the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth. FFLIC continues to sit at the table and participate in this effort and to fight for even more programs for our children, resources for our communities, and justice for our youth.