Two incarcerated youth being held in a juvenile justice facility at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are hoping to join a lawsuit aimed at shutting the facility down. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)
Louisiana will likely face challenges in hiring the guards, medical personnel, teachers and therapists and it needs for a new, controversial juvenile justice secure care facility it plans to open later this year at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Officials have said inadequate staffing has contributed to riots, escapes and violence at the state’s other secure care facilities for incarcerated teens, and critics believe the identical problems could surface at the new location, in part because it will be difficult to find workers.
“They are tying themselves into knots trying to make this plan workable,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which provides legal representation to incarcerated children and teenagers.
The new facility is slated to open in an unused building at Angola, located 22 miles from the nearest highway and surrounded by dense, undeveloped wilderness. The nearest town, St. Francisville, has fewer than 2,000 residents.
The site was chosen in part because of its remoteness. The state Office of Juvenile Justice plans to use it to house up to 24 youth who they haven’t been able to control at their other facilities. Those moved to the Angola facility would be young people with a history of escapes, destroying property, attacking staff and harassing youth at other locations, officials said.
Yet the Office of Juvenile Justice can’t find enough people to work at its existing facilities in more populated parts of the state such as Jefferson and Ouachita parishes, where it should be easier to find employees.
‘Everything comes down to staffing’
Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Bill Sommers said last month his agency had 350 vacant positions. More juvenile justice guards left their jobs than stayed during the state’s 2021-2022 fiscal cycle, according to budget documents. The agency also relaxed its standards for screening employees for pedophilia threats in an effort to find more staff.
Sommers attributes the riots and escapes that spurred the proposed opening of the Angola site, in part, to chronic staffing shortages.
“Everything comes down to staffing,” Sommers told state lawmakers during a hearing in August.
Sommers and Gov. John Bel Edwards now plan to open a facility for the most challenging incarcerated youth in a place where it has been notoriously difficult to hire correctional staff.
The Department of Public Safety and Corrections had such a hard time finding people to work at the adult prison at Angola earlier this year that it moved 600 incarcerated men out of the facility and increased prisoner capacity at Allen Correctional Center in southwest Louisiana, where it was easier to attract employees.
Louisiana’s adult prisons have struggled to attract and retain prison guards for years, but the problem has been most acute at Angola, where Thomas Bickham, who oversees finances for the prison system, said there were 350 vacant jobs last March.
“It’s a better location than something like Angola. I think they have a little bit more of an area to pull from,” said Bickham of Allen in March, when the prison system decided to shuffle more incarcerated people to that facility.
In all, the Office of Juvenile Justice wants to put 112 staff members at its proposed facility on the grounds of Angola. Civil rights attorneys who are suing the state to block the Angola site opening question whether that’s possible.
“[The staffing plan] is misleading because the positions have not been filled,” Christopher James Murrell, one of the attorneys bringing the lawsuit, said in a federal court hearing last week.
The Office of Juvenile Justice has already filled 60 of 112 of the positions, with 20 new hires and 40 existing staff members who will work at the Angola site on a rotating, temporary basis. The agency could open the facility – with only eight incarcerated youth at first – by the end of the month, assuming the civil rights attorneys’ lawsuit isn’t successful.
The facility at Angola is only supposed to be open temporarily, until the new Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and a mental health care unit are finished, but officials said that could take up to a year. Until then, the Angola center for incarcerated youth will have to be fully staffed.
Existing staff offered incentive for Angola shifts
Entry-level salaries for guards in the adult prison and juvenile justice center at Angola would be similar, according to state budget documents. As of July 1, the adult prison system is offering $40,250 annually to new guards, and the juvenile justice agency is offering $40,560.
Juvenile justice guard pay increased by $2 per hour in January in order to address the staffing crisis, but it’s not clear whether that increase will be permanent. Without the boost, the entry level juvenile justice guard salary would be $36,400 annually.
Juvenile justice officials have also offered pay increases to existing employees willing to take shifts at the Angola site. Current staff will be paid $5 more per hour at their current job and $6 more per hour while working at Angola. The current guards earn between $19.50 and $28.37 per hour.
The 40 staff members who chose to go to the Angola site on top of their regular jobs will pick up the extra work during their time off, said Curtis Nelson, assistant secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, in court last week. They will live in housing on Angola’s grounds for a week at a time while working.
Nelson said it is important that the Office of Juvenile Justice use experienced staff at the Angola site because the environment will be trickier. The youth housed there will be those with the worst behavioral problems, he said, and they must be kept apart from the adult prisoners. Federal law requires incarcerated youth and adult inmates be separated.
“To hire new staff and put them at this facility is a recipe for disaster,” Nelson said in court. “We are going to have to take our people that we already have.
Top administrators at the Angola juvenile justice facility will also be shared with the Bridge City Center for Youth, more than 150 miles away in Jefferson Parish. In fact, officials are referring to the Angola facility as the Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana.
The facility director, head of health care and school principal for the Angola juvenile justice center will all be co-appointees who oversee the same operations at Bridge City. They will split their time between the two locations, officials said during court testimony.
Critics question whether splitting facility leaders across two locations is wise, especially when Bridge City has been plagued with breakouts and violent attacks on staff. It would take staff from two to three hours to travel between the sites.
“The staff will not be able to spend adequate time at either location,” Clark-Rizzio said.
Juvenile justice officials also plan to lean on prison guards who work with the adult population at Angola for assistance. They will be used to “rove” the inside and outside of the juvenile justice center, Nelson said in court.
Civil rights lawyers argue this could be inappropriate, given that prison guards for adults can carry pepper spray and stun guns and juvenile justice staff do not. They wonder whether it could create conflict between the two staffs, especially during an outburst or attack from an incarcerated youth.
“If my staff is trained to de-escalate and your staff wants to tase, who wins?” Vincent Schiraldi, a juvenile justice expert witness hired by the civil rights lawyers, testified in court last week.
Schiraldi, who ran correctional facilities in Washington, D.C., and New York, said Louisiana’s timeline – opening the Angola juvenile justice site in a matter of weeks – was also too aggressive.
“We’re talking months to be able to get the staff humming,” he said.
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