Judge rules Louisiana must remove youth from Angola

A federal judge Friday ordered Louisiana prison officials to stop housing youth offenders in the former death row of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and to relocate them within one week.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of the Middle District of Louisiana found that conditions at Angola constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The ruling was the culmination of a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed last year after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state would start sending children to Angola because six juveniles had escaped from the Bridge City Center for Youth.

At the time, Edwards said the transfers to Angola were temporary while officials worked on renovations and improvements at another juvenile correctional facility.

In Friday’s verbal ruling, Dick noted the state broke promises it made last year during a September 2022 court hearing that the youths wouldn’t face punishment during their confinement, according to an ACLU press release.

The judge found that prison officials locked the juveniles in cells for days at a time and punished them with the use of handcuffs, pepper spray and denial of family visits. The state failed to provide adequate staffing, including licensed social workers or professional counselors, appropriate education and necessary mental health treatment or social services, according to Dick.

“Now, it is time for Louisiana’s leaders to provide the appropriate care and support so all children can thrive and reach their full potential,” said David Utter, the ACLU’s lead counsel. “We demand investment in our children, not punishment. State officials must address the long-standing, systemic failures in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system. A state where all our children — Black, brown and white — have equal access to opportunity is possible.”

[Related: Youth at Angola held in extreme heat, solitary confinement, court filings say]

There was no immediate response from the governor’s office in response to Dick’s ruling.

Advocates for incarcerated youth hailed the ruling and called on Edwards and the state Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) to address its shortcomings.

Antonio Travis, youth organizing manager with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said in a statement it was “shameful” that it took a lawsuit to force officials to remove the youth from Angola. He stressed the need for the state to take a holistic approach to juvenile justice as called for under state law approved two decades ago.

“Our ineffective over-reliance on youth prisons has proven time and again that punitive measures don’t work and don’t foster rehabilitation,” Travis said. “We must recommit to an approach that invests in community-based alternatives, including mental health and mentorship programs, to provide youth with opportunities and a future outside of prison walls.

[Related: Q&A: From Louisiana prisoner to Louisiana State University graduate]

“Today’s ruling is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t actually progress; it’s simply regaining what we lost last year when the Governor decided to send kids to Angola. There is much more work to be done in order to truly reform this broken system.”

The state Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) issued the following statement Friday afternoon:

“Last year, after a series of high-profile and violent incidents at OJJ facilities, the office of Juvenile Justice temporarily repurposed a facility on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary as a transitional treatment facility for high-risk youth. The decision was not made lightly but with inadequate space at existing OJJ facilities, immediate action was necessary to protect the youth, staff, and surrounding communities.

“OJJ has taken extraordinary measures to ensure the temporary West Feliciana Facility complies with state and federal law requiring the youth to continue receiving education classes, have suitable living conditions, and be completely separated from any adult inmates. The West Feliciana Facility has allowed us to keep community members, staff, and youth in our care safe, but the plan has always been to close the temporary facility as soon as possible and move the high-risk youth upon completion of the new Swanson secure care facility, which is scheduled to open later this year.

“While we disagree with the court’s ruling today and will be seeking an emergency writ, we will continue to explore every option available to us that ensures the safety of staff, community members, and youth in our care.”

***

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.

Story originally published by Lousiana Illuminator.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. 

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