Louisiana will move incarcerated youth to an adult prison. Child advocates are worried.

By: - July 20, 2022 11:34 am
Bridge City Center for Youth

Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish is one of the juvenile justice facilities that has seen several outbreaks of violence and escapes. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Child welfare advocates say they are extremely concerned about Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to temporarily move half of the incarcerated youth in a facility in Jefferson Parish to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, one of the nation’s largest and most notorious maximum-security adult prisons

Edwards emphasized the teenagers and young adults will be kept in a separate building on Angola’s sprawling campus and will have no contact with adult prisoners. Advocates said it’s still another move away from the rehabilitative juvenile justice model the state has been promising to implement for years. 

“Angola is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. Sending those kids there will ensure that’s what they become,” said Shon Williams, who was incarcerated at Angola as a teenager and now works for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “I know from experience that kids are not safe in adult prisons.”

Attorneys who represent minors in juvenile court said the move would likely open up the state to lawsuits. Louisiana law explicitly prohibits overlap between incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system and adult prisoners. By statute, they must be housed in separate facilities and are not allowed to see or hear each other while locked up.

“My concern is their ability to actually comply with [the law] that requires sight and sound separation,” said Hector Linares, a former State Public Defender Board member and Loyola University-New Orleans law professor who specializes in juvenile justice. “I’m familiar with Angola, and though they have a lot of buildings, that doesn’t mean sight and sound separation is possible.” 

At a press conference Tuesday, the governor admitted the transfer to Angola – which is supposed to take place some time next month – is not ideal, but he is trying to get the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish under control after a string of outbreaks that have shaken the surrounding community. 

Over the weekend, six youths at the center overpowered a guard, escaped from the facility and stole a vehicle. One of the escapees then allegedly shot a man during a carjacking in Uptown New Orleans before he was apprehended.

“I understand that this is not the perfect or ideal plan and that some will have questions,” Edwards said. “I do believe the situation demands an immediate response, and these are the best options that we currently have.”

‘Reactionary decision’

Advocates countered that the incarcerated youth are acting out because the state Office of Juvenile Justice has failed to provide adequate staff training and therapeutic programming at its facilities over the past few years. The move to Angola won’t help, they said.

“This reactionary decision to send teenagers to an adult prison won’t prevent the continued problems at OJJ facilities. It will ensure that these youth are even further deprived of the rehabilitative services they are supposed to, but have not been, receiving while in custody,” said Rachel Gassert, also with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to underage people who are incarcerated.

In all, around 25 young people are expected to head from Bridge City to Angola. Edwards said the youth who remain at Bridge City will be those enrolled in a program for underage sex offenders, which hasn’t had problems with breakouts or violence. Everyone else will be moved to the adult prison. 

The transfer to Angola also isn’t meant to be permanent. The incarcerated youth will eventually be moved to the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, which is undergoing renovations. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal closed Jetson in 2014, in large part because it wasn’t considered appropriate for implementing a therapeutic approach to juvenile justice. 

While at Angola, the youth will be housed in a building near the front gate of the prison’s campus that is attached to an administrative office building. It was most recently used to hold about 30 women prisoners who were forced to move when the state’s only women’s prison was destroyed during a massive flood in 2016.

Jimmy LeBlanc, who leads the state’s prison system, said Tuesday the incarcerated women were successfully kept safe and separate from the thousands of incarcerated men at Angola. So he feels confident the incarcerated youth can also be kept isolated from the adults. 

“These youth will not interact with our inmates at all. Period,” LeBlanc said.  

The Office of Juvenile Justice will be running the building and overseeing the care of the incarcerated youth. The prison system – including the administration at Angola – will not be involved in the facility’s operations, LeBlanc said.

Yet advocates are skeptical that keeping the incarcerated youth completely secluded from the incarcerated adults will be possible, especially because the prison’s operations depend so heavily on prison labor.

At Angola, incarcerated people are almost entirely responsible for cleaning, landscaping, farming, cooking and routine maintenance. Incarcerated youth are different from incarcerated adult women because they aren’t supposed to be put to work full-time in those capacities. So if adult prisoners aren’t allowed into the incarcerated youths’ building, it’s not clear how it will get cleaned or how routine maintenance – such as a stopped-up toilet – will be addressed, according to advocates. Angola doesn’t employ civilian janitors.

Linares also wonders how medical treatment would be handled. If an incarcerated youth needed to go to the infirmary, for example, how would the prison be able to avoid contact between him and incarcerated adults who also need medical treatment?

“I would think you would need to do major infrastructure changes to truly guarantee sight and sound separation [between incarcerated adults and youth],” he said. 

The prison system has also recently struggled to keep young detainees separated from adult prisoners, according to the advocates. When New Orleans juvenile detention center relocated its incarcerated youth to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel during Hurricane Ida last year, the young people reported seeing adult inmates at the prison.

LeBlanc said the situation at Angola will be different because the layout of the prison is more conducive to isolation. At Hunt, incarcerated youth and adult prisoners had to walk within sight of each other in order to get to their living areas. That’s not the case at Angola, he said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice staff will have to take care of some of the tasks that are handled by adult prisoners in other parts of the prison, like custodial work, LeBlanc said. Angola is offering to house staff from the Bridge City center in the “bachelor quarters” on the prison grounds. Historically, Angola has provided housing for its own staff, in part because Angola’s remote location makes it difficult for employees to reach.  

Staffing likely thin

Advocates are also worried the Office of Juvenile Justice won’t be able to hire enough staff to work with the incarcerated youth at Angola. The prison is in a rural area and 229 miles away from Bridge City. They find it unlikely that existing guards and teachers will want to relocate from their homes in Jefferson Parish to the prison grounds, even on a temporary basis.

Linares said he is specifically concerned that the agency won’t be able to find enough teachers to run the educational programs it is legally required to offer incarcerated youth. In Jefferson Parish, the state was able to run a school for the Bridge City center. In the rural area surrounding Angola, there aren’t likely to be as many people qualified for or interested in that type of job.

The prison system has already had difficulties getting people to work at Angola. Earlier this year, it launched a program to shuffle 600 incarcerated people out of the prison and into other facilities, in part because it has had trouble for years hiring and retaining staff at the remote campus

“The ability to hire special education teachers and related service providers, I think it will be very difficult. I don’t know how they are going to do that,” Linares said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice has also previously run into problems with providing school and educational services to incarcerated youth at another facility.

After a violent riot at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe that left an administrator’s skull cracked open, a group of incarcerated youth were moved from that facility to an old jail in St. Martinville. For months, the young people weren’t offered any education services while staying there, the Office of Juvenile Justice admitted after an investigation into the facility from ProPublica, NBC News and The Marshall Project

Edwards and the Office of Juvenile Justice’s head William Sommers have said that will not happen in this case. At Tuesday’s press conference, they committed to providing the same educational and rehabilitation services to the incarcerated youth who will stay at Angola that were available at Bridge City.

Sommers spent Tuesday night at the Bridge City facility, where he told the Illuminator he was there to “get things fixed.” He acknowledged staffing is critical to a solution.

Some state legislators are not necessarily comfortable with the plan put forward by the governor.

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said he didn’t know if it was appropriate for incarcerated youth to be sent to adult prisons. In response to the New Orleans juvenile detainees being evacuated to an adult prison during Hurricane Ida, Duplessis sponsored legislation this year to prevent the mixing of underage detainees with incarcerated adults during natural disasters. It failed to pass. 

“It’s clear that the current system at Bridge city is not working and immediate action is necessary to stop these repeated escapes,” Duplessis said. “Placing juveniles in an adult facility, however, does raise cause for concern.” 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.