KSLA INVESTIGATES: Family of boy who took his own life at Ware Youth Center speaks out about troubles at facility
COUSHATTA, La. (KSLA) - Almost four years ago at the Ware Youth Center in Red River Parish, two teenage boys died by suicide just 72 hours apart.
While that detention center was cited for several violations of state regulations, Ware and its administrators didn’t face any penalties.
The image that haunts Bridget Peterson is the death of her son Solan, a 13-year-old boy who died by suicide after spending four days in solitary confinement at the center. Surveillance video shows the moment a guard discovered Solan’s body hanging in his cell.
According to Bridget, the mental pain of isolation killed her son.
“To know that the last week of his life was spent in hell being tortured mentally, it haunts me,” she said. “Just ultimately, being by himself, in a very small room, I think the walls caved in on him.”
Solan, Ronnie Peterson’s dad, describes his son as an intelligent eighth grader who struggled with ADHD and anxiety.
“He did not do well with boredom or inactivity,” he said.
Solan never faced legal trouble until a week before his death. That’s when Solan set fire to a roll of toilet paper at Haughton Middle School.
While the Peterson’s say they begged police to send him to a mental health facility for help, Solan landed at the Ware Youth Center instead.
“One of the officers at the scene said there would be a public outcry if they found out that somebody set fire in a school and that he wasn’t arrested,” said Bridget.
After being at the detention center for just a couple of days, guards caught Solan taking apart the light in his cell and picking the door lock. Ware officials then sent Solan to solitary confinement. According to his parents, solitary is where they saw Solan during their only visit.
“We could just basically see him through a four-by-four-inch window in the door,” said Ronnie.
He says it didn’t take long before the boredom and loneliness of isolation broke his son.
“He seemed defeated. His knuckles were bruised and bloody. I asked him about it and he said, ‘Well, I’m bored, so I’ve been doing nothing but punching the walls.”
Four days later, on the night of February 9, 2019, Solan died by suicide.
Then news broke that another boy, 17-year-old Jordan Bachman, died by hanging himself just three days before Solan’s death.
“It’s incredibly disturbing that you could have two suicides of young people inside this facility, who felt that was their only option and no one stepped in,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, lawyer and co-executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
He says Ware isn’t a typical juvenile detention facility.
“It was legislatively created in 1986, and so it’s its own political subdivision that has the sole purpose of jailing and imprisoning young people.”
That political designation shields Ware from accountability – according to Clark-Rizzio – when tragedy strikes, like the deaths of Jordan Bachman and Solan Peterson.
“If we were to have deaths at other facilities, oftentimes those places would be shut down immediately,” he said.
While the back-to-back suicides launched a regulatory investigation that found Ware broke multiple rules, including putting kids in solitary confinement for too long, and improper supervision, Clark-Rizzio says the State of Louisiana took no action against Ware or the people running the facility.
“Publicly, I’m unaware of any accountability of any adult for what’s happened in Ware,” he said.
Looking at video outside Solan’s cell, investigators also found evidence of a possible cover-up.
“Everything that has happened has really been shrouded in secrecy,” said Clark-Rizzo.
Guards at Ware are supposed to check rooms every 15 minutes. Ware documents claim the night Solan took his life, proper “room checks were conducted.”
However, state investigators discovered video footage showing the documented room checks never happened. The following document is the licensing report completed by the Department of Children & Family Services after a visit to Ware Youth Center on Feb. 13, 2019:
“They doctored their own records,” said Ronnie. With cameras capturing guards skipping Solan’s 15-minute room checks for more than two hours.
“How do you not take care of kids if that’s what your job is? How do you not take care of them?” asked Bridget.
That discovery led to the arrest of Jhanquial Smith, a former Ware guard – who faces one count of malfeasance in office. Smith is pleading not guilty to the charge. On the afternoon of Nov. 17, Red River District Attorney Julie Jones emailed KSLA the following statement regarding Smith’s case:
“State of Louisiana versus Jhanquail Smith” is currently pending in the 39th Judicial District Court. To date, a plea has not been discussed between the District Attorney’s Office and defense counsel. The District Attorney’s Office has been in contact with Robin Simmons, the grandmother of the victim, through the Victim’s Assistance Coordinator who acts as the liaison between the DA’s office and victims and/or their families; moreover, the District Attorney’s Office will communicate with the parents of the victim the content of any conversations regarding a plea agreement or preparation for trial as this case continues through the justice system.
The job of the District Attorney is to strive to ensure that justice is done, which includes taking into consideration the desires of the victim or the victim’s family as much as practicable. Finally, any questions regarding investigations or the possibility of additional criminal charges will need to be addressed to law enforcement. If additional cases are referred, the District Attorney’s Office will prosecute the cases if the evidence supports these actions.
Bridget worries Smith will get off easy if convicted because she says Jones refuses to meet with the Peterson family and discuss the case.
“I feel like they’re hiding something. I feel like they don’t want us to know what is going on,” she said.
With almost four years passing since her son’s suicide, Bridget is finally finding some peace. But in her heart, she admits some anger remains for the people and place she blames for Solan’s death.
“I’m at peace knowing that he’s in heaven. That’s what gives me peace knowing that one day I will see him again,” she said. “I’m not always angry, it’s just when you learn new information or you stop and think, ‘Oh these people don’t care.’”
KSLA News 12 reached out to the Ware Youth Center for comment on these events. They responded with the following statement on November 2, 2022:
“While Ware Youth Center would love to have the opportunity to discuss the content of this news article, it cannot and will not discuss the records of current or past juveniles who have been remanded to its detention, intensive residential, or group home programs. Releasing information on minors is prohibited by Louisiana state statutes, and juvenile criminal offenses are sealed upon a juvenile attaining age 18.
Ware Youth Center is tasked with detaining juveniles who are charged or convicted with crimes of varying degrees up to murder, rape, and other violent criminal acts. Having operated three decades in parishes that previously had no juvenile detention facilities, Ware Youth Center has successfully served over 13,000 juveniles. While Louisiana currently grapples with the challenge of detaining juveniles who are charged with very serious crimes and who become more violent when incarcerated, Ware Youth Center is the only juvenile justice entity in our state that implements the Missouri Youth Services Institute (MYSI) and all its programs. This is a therapeutic rehabilitation model, and Ware Youth Center has invested over $400,000.00 in it to date. More information on this program can be found at www.mysiconsulting.org.
As widely reported, some detained juveniles are so violent and destructive that plans are underway to house many at Angola State Penitentiary. Ware Youth Center’s model for therapeutic rehabilitation is critical, and housing juveniles in northwest Louisiana is important for those in detention who are charged with crimes in the local parishes Ware Youth Center serves.”
There is some hope that Ware could face accountability in the near future. Governor John Bel Edwards is calling on the State Inspector General to launch its own investigation of Ware, after reporting that 64 children attempted suicide at the center since Solan’s death.
KSLA will be following that investigation and the Smith case as both move forward.
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