A Small Louisiana Town Struggles to Shut Down a Prison and Build a School: Education Versus Incarceration in Tallulah
By JORDAN FLAHERTY
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 a 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 let’s 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 and a community organizer based in New Orleans. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.