A judge agreed to send two-dozen children to Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison, despite appeals from the ACLU, federal officials and children’s family members.
After a series of embarrassing escapes from the state’s low-security Bridge City Center juvenile detention facility, Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick decided that the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) can send the children to the maximum-security adult prison, despite an ACLU motion to block the transfer. Youth activists, attorneys, and the detainees’ family members oppose the transfer, but the judge issued a 64-page ruling arguing that the allocation does not appear to violate federal law.
Federal rules require youth be kept separately from incarcerated adults, but Louisiana officials ducked the rules by stashing them in an Angola Prison facility roughly a mile from the nearest adult dormitory.
The relocation is part of a bigger state effort to gather problem kids from across Louisiana’s juvenile justice system into one convenient place. The transfers mirror recent relocations to other "transitional treatment units," including a problematic round-up of at-risk youth in St. Martinville last year.
The Marshall Project, a nonprofit covering the U.S. criminal justice system, reported that one 15-year-old youth detained in at the St. Martinville facility claimed at a hearing that he was kept in “round-the-clock solitary confinement” with no education, in violation of state and federal laws. He also claimed he was receiving none of his court-ordered substance abuse counseling.
No official in the courtroom at the time of the youth’s testimony admitted having even heard of the Acadiana Center for Youth, in St. Martinville.
“It was as if a secret prison had been opened up,” said Jack Harrison, an attorney for the youth. “I could see on the judge’s face both shock and real anger — visceral anger.”
Federal officials are already leery at the idea. Elizabeth Ryan, administrator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, warned the state that “it is well-documented that children are at serious risk of harm and abuse when they are placed in adult jails or adult prisons.”
Ryan said in a July letter that Louisiana is risking emotional harm to youth and complicating their rehabilitation by housing them so far from their families. In addition, she said the state of Louisiana is inviting legal trouble by potentially violating federal laws such as the sight and sound separation protection in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), and the youthful inmate standard of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Louisiana, she added, could also potentially face costly litigation in the event of disaster.
The state’s beleaguered juvenile justice system is already under massive strain as lingering COVID-19 issues and a healthy job market is pressing juvenile justice system guards and safety personnel into other, less stressful, higher paying jobs. The distinct absence of supervision is dumbing down rehabilitative efforts. The Marshall project reports children, many with mental illness, being locked alone in their cells for at least 23 hours a day, for weeks, at the Martinville facility. Other reports claim juveniles being shackled with handcuffs and leg irons during showers and fed through slots in their cage doors.
Frustrated teens threw excrement and urine at guards, and at least two harmed themselves enough to require medical attention. Others vandalized their rooms, even using metal shards to dig escape holes into their walls.
Attorneys for the juveniles’ families criticized the plan in the ACLU filing to block the effort.
“The move to put youth in Angola ignores decades of research showing young people in adult lock-ups makes us less safe, not more,” said David Utter who filed the federal lawsuit to halt the transfer. “The idea that Louisiana is pursuing a policy of placing youth in an adult prison in 2022 truly shocks the conscience.”
Gina Womack, co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, slammed officials for having had “ample opportunity to enact meaningful reforms” in the best interest of youth, but instead lazily moved ahead with “unjust policies” that “further traumatize incarcerated youth, their families, and communities.”
“The move defies all common sense and best practices, and it will cause irrevocable damage to our youth and families,” Womack said.
Even the judge acknowledged in her own ruling that she found “the prospect of putting a teenager to bed at night in a locked cell behind razor wire surrounded by swamps at Angola […] disturbing,” and that “some of the children in OJJ’s care are so traumatized and emotionally and psychologically disturbed that OJJ is virtually unable to provide a secure care environment.”
The judged concluded that she was putting the safety of society first: “While locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable. The untenable must yield to the intolerable.”