Youth held at Angola allege violence from guards, extended lockdown in lawsuit

By: - January 6, 2023 3:45 pm
Entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola

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)

An incarcerated youth said guards at a controversial juvenile justice facility recently opened on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola have hit young people and used mace multiple times to restrain them. The building has also gone into lockdown for days at a time, where young people are only let out of their cells for showers, he said.

The incarcerated 15-year-old is identified by the pseudonym Daniel D. in court documents filed Thursday,

“A boy struck a guard. The staff got him on the ground and were punching him,” Daniel said in the court record. “The staff started macing all of us. No one else had hit any of the guards but they were macing us all. The staff was hitting the first boy while he was on the ground being maced.” 

“[After another violent incident], we did not get to leave our cells at all for those 3 or 4 days, except for to use showers,” he said in a written statement. “About 3 or 4 times our whole pod has been locked down and we are not able to leave our cells except to shower. They would keep us locked in the whole weekend.”

Daniel and another boy held at the new Angola juvenile facility have asked to join an ongoing lawsuit over that facility filed in federal court in Baton Rouge. 

Civil rights attorneys are challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to house minors and young adults in the juvenile justice system on the grounds of Angola, one of the country’s largest, maximum security prisons for adults. 

The testimony of Daniel and another boy, a 17-year-old identified with the pseudonym Edward E., are the first accounts made public of life inside the new facility since it opened in October. 

The Office of Juvenile Justice could not be reached for comment Friday and has not answered previous questions about the lawsuit sent to its communications director over the past month.



Cold showers, limited education and frequent lockdowns 

The Angola juvenile facility has held seven to eight minors and young adults since October that state officials deemed too disruptive to stay at other secure campuses in the state’s juvenile justice system.

Juvenile justice staff said the youth held at Angola contributed to riots, violence against peers, attacks on guards and escapes at other facilities. Over time, the group of incarcerated youth is expected to rotate, meaning that a different young people will cycle in and out of the building, depending on the juvenile justice system’s needs.  

Child welfare advocates and civil rights attorneys argue the Angola facility, which previously housed adults on death row, doesn’t align with the mission of the juvenile justice system. Its youth facilities are supposed to be therapeutic, not punitive like adult prisons.

Putting young people in an adult prison building could not only interfere with their rehabilitation but may contribute to suicidal thoughts and self harm, they said. Attorneys have also raised questions about whether adequate education and medical care are offered.

What Daniel and Edward described also paints a different picture from the one juvenile justice officials put forth during an initial court hearing in September.

The state officials downplayed the use of solitary confinement and lockdowns, saying youth would primarily be confined to their cells only when they slept. They told Judge Shelly Dick the therapeutic and educational services provided at a traditional juvenile justice facility would also be available at Angola. 

But Daniel and Edward said the resources they received at other facilities are missing. Daniel said he no longer has access to substance abuse treatment, and Edward complained about the schooling. He said there is only one permanent teacher for eight incarcerated youth at Angola.

“We all get the same work and assignments even if we are on different grade levels, except for the work we do on ‘study buddy’ devices,” Edward wrote. “I have been given work from an 8th grade ELA workbook [even though I am in the 10th grade].”

“Everyday, they lock us in our cell at 5 p.m. We don’t get out until around 6:45 a.m. the next day,” Daniel wrote. “During school days, we get locked back in our cell about five times during the day before 5 p.m.” 

In previous statements, the Office of Juvenile Justice had also emphasized that their own staff – not the staff of the adult prison – would be running the facility. But Daniel described Department of Corrections staff, guards from the adult prison, as being omnipresent.

“I see DOC guards every day. Every time there is a fight between kids and staff, DOC responds,” he said. “When DOC guards arrive, all OJJ staff say the situation is out of their hands and whatever DOC says goes.” 

“There were 8 of us kids in the room. Only one youth had hit the guard. DOC ordered everyone on the wall. The DOC guards grabbed and twisted my arm,” Daniel wrote. “They hurt me. I was not part of the fight.”

Daniel also had complaints about the physical condition of the Angola facility. He said there is no hot water for showers when it’s cold outside, and the power goes out when it rains. He also said he’s forced to brush his teeth with water from moldy taps and sinks.

“When the power goes out after it rains, we get locked in our cells a whole day,” he wrote. “We don’t get to go to the classroom for school.” 

Edward described the food at Angola as being far worse than the food at other juvenile justice facilities.

“We often find hair in our food,” he wrote. “One day another youth threw his plate on the ground after finding a hair. The next day, the staff blended all of his food together, and fried it into a food loaf.”

Both Daniel and Edward said their family members used to visit them at other juvenile justice facilities, but neither had seen their family since they were moved to Angola. The prison is in a remote location, especially difficult to access for people who don’t have a car. 

“Even if they transfer me to another facility, I’m worried they will ship me back here to Angola. This is much worse than other facilities,” Daniel said.

 

Attorneys say access to Angola clients is difficult

The civil rights attorneys said they have two other clients at Angola that the Office of Juvenile Justice has blocked them from meeting in person. In December, they asked the court to intervene and force the state to allow those meetings.

In legal documents, attorneys for state officials pushed back, saying the civil rights lawyers haven’t provided proof they were hired to represent the two other incarcerated youth. 

The state’s attorneys also likely oppose Daniel, Edward or any other youth at Angola joining the lawsuit. They have already asked the court to throw out the lawsuit because the three existing plaintiffs do not include youth currently held at Angola. If Daniel and Edward join the plaintiffs’ group, it might nullify that argument.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have also implied the state could be keeping their current plaintiffs from the Angola facility on purpose in order to strengthen the state’s case. 

One of the initial plaintiffs, identified in court documents as Alex A., had been told he would likely be moved to the new juvenile justice facility at Angola in September. But after joining the lawsuit and testifying at an initial court hearing on the matter, he never was transferred there. He remains at Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. 

The two other existing plaintiffs were also threatened with a move to Angola but never sent, according to their attorneys.

One incarcerated youth seeking to join the lawsuit has also been moved out of the Angola facility already. Edward was transferred to another juvenile justice center on Dec. 15 or 16, within two days of when he met with an attorney at Angola on Dec. 14, according to court documents.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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