Louisiana is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fortify its juvenile justice centers against escapes. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)
Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana lawmakers may end up spending 75% more than they intended on repairs to an incarcerated youth facility in order to fortify the building against escapes.
Lawmakers initially allocated $440,217 in May 2021 to fix damage at Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie. Less than two years later, the project cost has soared to $771,615, according to information provided Friday to Louisiana’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
State officials say they need the extra money to provide “more resilient doors, frames and locksets.” Those would replace doors and locks that were damaged when incarcerated teenagers and young adults repeatedly broke out of the building.
The project is part of a larger move to retrofit the state’s secure care youth facilities to become more like adult prisons, which worries child welfare advocates.
The advocates argue youth facilities are supposed to be focused on rehabilitation and education – not punitive, like adult prisons. Reworking them to more closely resemble adult lockups is counterproductive, they said.
State facilities for incarcerated youth have been plagued by outbreaks, riots and other forms of violence over the past two years. Officials have said staff and incarcerated youth will not be safe until increased security measures are taken.
Child welfare advocates have pushed back on this notion, saying the violence and disruptions are the result of low staffing, lack of resources and ineffective programming. Building more secure facilities won’t solve the underlying problem, they said.
Changes proposed for the Acadiana Center for Youth particularly highlights a shift in approach to juvenile justice from Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration.
First opened in 2019, the Acadiana Center for Youth was intentionally built with low-security measures to encourage a therapeutic environment. Officials at the time said it was designed on purpose to look more like a school or college dormitory rather than a prison.
Yet Louisiana has been doubling down on fortification of its juvenile justice facilities since a group of incarcerated youths escaped the Bridge City Center for Youth last year, attacked a man in New Orleans, and caused political difficulties for the governor.
In October, Edwards opened a controversial juvenile justice site on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, one of the largest maximum security prisons for adults in the country. It houses a handful of young people, those deemed by officials to have the most severe behavior issues.
Federal law prohibits incarcerated youth and adult prisoners from interacting. President Joe Biden’s administration has chastised the governor for putting a juvenile justice site on the grounds of Angola, though the young people and adult inmates are supposed to be kept separate at the prison.
The state has also spent a considerable amount of money – more than $550,000 – overhauling a building at Angola to make it suitable for young people in the juvenile justice system.
For the Acadiana youth center project, lawmakers already approved an additional $189,349 in August. The Office of Juvenile Justice is asking the joint budget committee to sign off on $142,000 more at its February meeting.
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