Federal judge allows Louisiana to move incarcerated teens to Angola

By: - September 23, 2022 7:53 pm
Entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola

The entrance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. (Photo credit: Jarvis DeBerry/Louisiana Illuminator)

A federal judge will not stop Louisiana from moving incarcerated teens in the state’s juvenile justice system to a building on the grounds of one of the largest maximum security adult prisons in the country.

“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,” wrote Shelly Dick, a federal judge in the U.S. Middle District Court of Louisiana, in a ruling released Friday evening.

Civil rights attorneys sued Louisiana a month ago in an effort to block plans to open a juvenile justice facility just inside the front gate of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. With the state prevailing in this initial legal fight, eight youths could be transferred to the site as early as next week.  

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has spent the past two months converting a building designed to hold adult death row inmates into a secure care center for incarcerated minors. 

It’s eventually expected to house between 24 and 30 young people. The occupants could be as young as 10 years old, according to officials’ testimony in court.  

The governor and other state officials have pushed the Angola building as the temporary solution to existing youth lockups being overrun with violence and escapes. Incarcerated teens and children in the facilities have repeatedly attacked each other and staff over the past two years. 

“You cannot do therapy if a faction of youth are disrupting everything,” William Sommers, the deputy secretary who supervises the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice, said of the ongoing violence. 

In her ruling, Dick said she believes sending children and adolescents to Angola will likely be distressing for them, but she considers the more pressing concern to be the safety of incarcerated minors who aren’t acting out. 

“The Court is mindful that the specter of the prison surroundings alone will likely cause psychological trauma and harm. However, the public interest and the balance of harms require that [state government] be afforded the latitude to carry out its rehabilitative mission for the benefit of all youth in its care,” she wrote in her ruling.

“Other youth have been victimized by the high-risk youth when they try to go to sleep at night, and they have reported to [Juvenile Justice administrator Curtis Nelson] that they are afraid to go to sleep at night for fear of being attacked by these high-risk youth,” Dick said.

State officials hope the building at Angola will be more secure than its other juvenile justice centers. Its concrete walls, individual cells and remote location – the prison is more than 20 miles away from the nearest town – should make it more difficult for incarcerated youth to terrorize each other, attack staff or run away.

But civil rights attorneys said a building on the grounds of an adult prison could not be transformed to adequately serve the juvenile justice system’s needs. Unlike the adult prison system, the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to be therapeutic and rehabilitative, not punitive. 

“Just as a leopard cannot change its spots, a facility designed to isolate men incarcerated on death row cannot change from an adult penal institution into a youth facility offering rehabilitation,” plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in a legal brief earlier this month.

Federal law also requires adult prisoners and incarcerated youth to be kept far enough apart that they cannot see or hear each other. Critics say that will be a challenge at Angola, which houses more than 4,000 incarcerated adults. 

Dick said in her opinion that she has faith the Office of Juvenile Justice will be able to maintain the required “sight and sound separation” between adults and youths however. 

Among other things, the agency plans to wrap the perimeter fence encompassing the new juvenile justice facility with a solid fabric to prevent the adult prisoners and young people being able to see each other.

The judge is also confident that other problem areas at the Angola site – including lackluster recreational facilities and impersonal vistiaton areas for family visits – will be addressed before the building opens. 

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of an incarcerated minor, referred to as Alex A. in court documents, who is currently held at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. 

Alex A. has so much anxiety about potentially being moved to the Angola site that he has been pulling his own hair out, according to court documents.

In her ruling, Dick provided a history of Alex A.’s violent behavior. Through testimony to the court, he admitted to getting angry enough that he choked a person and broke another person’s nose. He also said he has masturbated to female juvenile justice staff and knocked one staff member unconscious during a riot at the Swanson Center for Youth. If he got angry enough, Alex A. told the court he might kill someone.

According to court documents, this type of record makes Alex A. an attractive candidate for transfer to the Angola facility, where officials say the most difficult incarcerated youth will have less opportunity to hurt others. 

But Alex A.’s primary concern about being moved to Angola, Dick wrote, was a fear of being assaulted by adult inmates. Assuming incarcerated youth were kept separate from the adults, as Dick believes they can be, Alex A.’s worries could be tempered. 

This case was always expected to be a tough one for the civil rights groups to win. 

Judges are reluctant to preemptively intervene in state government operations, and the legal threshold for blocking the state’s juvenile justice plan was high, said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, a former New Orleans public defender and executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. 

Dick also said as much in her own ruling. 

“Plaintiff elicited testimony of ‘best practices’ or prevailing industry standards; however, the Constitution does not require ‘best practices.’ Courts addressing the constitutional claims of juveniles in secure care stress this point,” she wrote.

“This solution [involving Angola] is distressing and not without consequence. That our society has such a choice to make is emblematic of grave underlying systemic social issues,” Dick said.

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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.