The entrance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. (Photo credit: Jarvis DeBerry/Louisiana Illuminator)
NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on Wednesday halted a federal judge’s order that the state of Louisiana shut down a controversial temporary youth detention center on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The order will pause a deadline for the state Office of Juvenile Justice to move the youths currently being held at the unit.
The temporary pause affects roughly 15 teenagers reported to be held at the unit as of last week. State juvenile justice officials have said between 70 to 80 children have been transferred to Angola in the last year.
“This stay order will allow OJJ to continue to consider the options available to the state to ensure the safety of staff, community members, and youth in our care,” Otha “Curtis” Nelson, deputy secretary of OJJ, said in an emailed statement Thursday.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge granted an emergency request from a group of civil rights attorneys representing incarcerated teens to order the state to stop all transfers to the Angola facility. Dick also ordered the state to move the youths held there to dedicated juvenile detention centers, giving the state until Friday to do so.
David Utter, lead attorney for a group of youngsters who have been transferred to Angola, said he and his team were, “dismayed and disappointed” by the appellate court’s stay order:“Judge Dick’s written ruling is clear that every day that that place stays open is a day when the children there are being harmed,” Utter said.
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The order followed an eight-day hearing on the request, stretched out over three weeks, in which the youths’ attorneys argued that the facility, located in a former death row unit, was not properly equipped for juveniles and that the teenagers being held there had been subjected to harsh discipline and were not receiving educational and mental health services required by state and federal law.
Attorneys for the state had claimed that the unit, which opened last year following a series of violent incidents and escapes at juvenile detention centers, was necessary to ensure public safety: “There’s going to be a real risk if the facility ceases to operate,” Lemuel Montgomery III, an attorney for the state, said in an interview last month.
The state this week announced that it was appealing Dick’s order, but Dick on Tuesday refused to grant a stay pending the outcome of the appeal.
The state took its request to the appeals court, and on Wednesday afternoon, a three-judge panel granted the motion on a short-term basis, pending a full review of the stay request. Attorneys for the youths have until Friday to respond to the stay request.
Attorneys for the state did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday morning. Lawyers representing the youths held at Angola were not immediately available for comment.
Youths sent to the Angola unit spend about four to eight weeks there, where the state has said they complete rehabilitative programming based on cognitive behavioral therapy. The youths are then transferred back to general population juvenile detention facilities. But at the end of the federal hearing this summer, Dick found that youths sent to the prison had been “traumatized, victimized and significantly harmed,” she said.
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