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)
Louisiana will move youth incarcerated at its maximum-security adult penitentiary in Angola to a new youth correctional center in the fall, a state corrections official said Friday.
Meanwhile, the Office of Juvenile Justice has dozens of minors temporarily held in local adult jails who await placement at state facilities.
OJJ Deputy Secretary Curtis Nelson told members of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission that Louisiana’s other secure youth centers are at or near capacity, and its group homes are without enough staffing to expand how many people they can house.
Teens held at Angola will be relocated to the new Swanson Center for Youth under construction in Monroe in late October or mid-November, Nelson said. The project was slated for completion this past spring but has been delayed by weather.
Fifteen youth are currently held in a renovated former death row building at Angola, Nelson said. They are taking part in what he described as a four- to eight-week “treatment plan” before being returned to their original youth correctional campuses.
Some 70 to 80 juveniles have been sent to Angola since Gov. John Bel Edwards announced a year ago some would be moved to the state penitentiary until a more suitable facility was available.
At the time, the Office of Juvenile Justice was faced with multiple escapes, damaged dorms and injuries to staff at its youth centers, including the existing Swanson site. One escapee from the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish allegedly shot a man during a carjacking.
The Angola facility is being called as the Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana, Nelson said, indicating a concerted effort to disassociate it with the state penitentiary, nation’s largest maximum-security adult prison.
That connection has spurred lawsuits on behalf of the youth held there. Two teens claim guards there have pepper-sprayed them and placed them in isolation for extended periods, according to a report from The Advocate on court documents. Youth advocates also tried unsuccessfully to get a federal court to block the transfers to Angola.
Critics of sending juveniles to Angola say the state has abandoned its commitment to rehabilitate them, choosing a punitive approach instead.
The new 72-bed Swanson facility appears to straddle that line, based on Nelson’s description. He called it a “Tier 1” center where youth will receive “intensive rehabilitation work.” They will be housed in single-bed units rather than the shared dormitory spaces that have proven problematic at the existing Swanson center and other sites.
“The days of having open-dorm facilities, we probably should go away from that,” Nelson said, “because we are truly dealing with the youth who, the decision has been made, that removal from the community is necessary to help get you in a contained setting where we can begin to give you the treatment for your rehabilitation.”
The three buildings currently in use at Swanson could be repurposed as a “Youth Challenge” site where youths could be sentenced to a boot camp program the Louisiana National Guard would operate, Nelson said. Some juvenile judges are interested in seeing the old Swanson put to this use, he added.
Use of existing facilities
Since transferring some of its residents to Angola, the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish now houses juveniles sentenced for sex-related offenses, Nelson said. It provides long-term services for higher-risk juveniles along with its branch at Angola, the existing Swanson Center in Monroe and the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie, where the state has spent more than $770,000 for repairs after teens and young adults escaped in 2021.
Nelson said there is room to house more youth at Angola, but the centers at Bunkie and Monroe are at capacity.
The Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville is used as a processing center where youths are held before being permanently assigned to a secure or nonsecure site. There are 25 people currently incarcerated there.
The Swanson Center for Youth at Columbia is where youths considered very low risks can be “fast-tracked” to community-based services, Nelson said.
Current juvenile incarceration numbers
There are 3,116 youth in the custody of the state’s juvenile correctional system, including nearly 2,400 under “community-based supervision,” Nelson told the commission.
There are 364 male juveniles held at secure facilities and another 368 at non-secure group homes, which Nelson said have struggled to attract and retain staffing and as a result house fewer youth than they have the space to accommodate. Lagging pay is the chief reason why group home workers are difficult to find, according to Nelson, who said he intends to request additional funds for salaries in the OJJ’s budget next year.
The rate of Black youth among the 380 people incarcerated at Louisiana’s secure juvenile facilities
Sixteen juvenile girls are incarcerated at the Ware Youth Center, a facility in Red River Parish that also holds adult pre-trial detainees. The governor launched a second investigation into Ware last year after reports that its staff engaged in sexual and physical abuse of youths housed there over a 25-year period.
Of the 67 juveniles being held in local adult detention centers, 35 are pending placement at secure facilities and 32 will end up in group homes, Nelson said.
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