Civil rights attorneys are asking a federal judge to order the state of Louisiana to immediately cease transferring juveniles to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and to move the ones currently incarcerated there. 

In a motion for a preliminary injunction filed on Monday (July 17) evening, the attorneys — who represent youths who were transferred to the state’s largest adult prison as a temporary measure due to overcrowding and security problems at state juvenile detention centers — wrote that teenagers, some as young as 15, were being subjected to solitary confinement and extreme heat and have not been receiving the services that the state is required to provide them.  

After Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the transfer plan last year, his administration promised that the teens would not experience the same harsh conditions as adults imprisoned at Angola. What’s more, the state claimed it would provide the same types of services to the teenagers being held at Angola as it is legally required to provide at juvenile detention centers. 

But the state has not lived up to those promises, an attorney for the youths said.  

“The state has reneged on all of its promises to the court about having a robust education system, about having robust counseling, about providing visitation with their parents. None of that has happened,” David Utter said in a Sunday interview with Verite. 

Utter is lead counsel in an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed last August that initially sought to block the plan from being implemented in the first place.  

In July 2022 Edwards and Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary William Sommers announced the plan to relocate some juveniles to the maximum-security adult prison in West Feliciana. The move was to be temporary, to allow construction crews time to complete a new unit at the Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe, expected by April of this year. The announcement followed a series of violent incidents and escapes at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. 

The proposal was met with immediate criticism from advocates for incarcerated youth. Attorneys filed suit within a few weeks of Edwards’ announcement, asking federal Judge Shelly Dick to issue a preliminary injunction halting the plan pending the outcome of the case. 

Dick denied the request last year, allowing the youths to be sent to Angola. 

“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,” she wrote.  

But on Monday, the juveniles’ attorneys countered that the current situation has become intolerable. 

“It has now been more than eight months – and well past April 2023 – since OJJ placed its first cohort of children in Angola. … The vast majority of these boys are Black and some have been transferred to Angola more than once,” they wrote. “The use of an adult maximum-security facility to detain these youth violates their constitutional and statutory rights and the rights of the putative class — all youth in OJJ’s system at risk of being transferred to Angola.”

Earlier this month, an Office of Juvenile Justice official announced that the Monroe facility is expected to be ready in the fall. Edwards’ office, along with officials from OJJ and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. 

‘I want to get out of here’

In her September ruling denying the injunction, Dick laid out what the state would provide to the youths who would be kept in the adult prison facility, referred to as a “temporary transitional treatment unit” or as Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth-West Feliciana in court documents. Special education services, which are required by federal law for children with disabilities, would not be interrupted. 

“The same education and special education services provided to youth in other OJJ facilities will be provided to youth transferred to BCCY-WF,” the plan said. “OJJ’s TTU Program will designate at the minimum 2 special education teachers to provide students with disabilities identified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (‘IDEA’) with any special education instructions as prescribed by the student’s Individualized Education Program.”

But sworn statements from teens who have been held at Angola, filed with the motion for a preliminary injunction, say they don’t have enough teachers and are not getting their IEP provisions.

“I am not receiving my accommodations here even though I have an IEP,” A 17-year-old identified under the pseudonym “Charles C.” wrote in a June 26 statement.  “I don’t have access to my one on one accommodations, extra time and read out loud because I am here.” 

“I have an individualized education program and one of the accommodations I’m supposed to get is having materials read aloud to me. That doesn’t happen here,” wrote 16-year-old “Frank F.” another pseudonym, in a March statement. 

The education plan for BCCY-WF boasted an eight-to-one student to teacher ratio, better than the twelve-to-one ratio it said existed at most OJJ facilities. 

“For school I sit in front of a computer all day. There is only one teacher for all the students,” a 16-year-old identified as “Daniel D.” wrote

Under the plan, mental health services were not to be interrupted. The goal was to have two mental health counselors onsite for eight hours per day and on-call on nights and weekends. 

“I want to get out of here. There are no behavioral programs here,” Charles C. wrote in the statement. “At other facilities I could meet with a counselor and work towards achieving my goals. If those services were offered I would want to use them.” 

“The counseling here is not any good. It is rare that I get to see anyone, and mostly they just let me call home,” he added in a subsequent statement on July 11. 

In his March declaration, Frank F. said he had not been in group therapy — a daily occurrence at Swanson Center for Youth, where he was transferred from — since he arrived at Angola in March. Daniel D. wrote that he had been treated for substance use while at Swanson, but had not received any such treatment at Angola. His June 26 declaration said he was, “still not receiving substance use treatment.” 

Dick’s ruling said Sommers, who resigned from OJJ late last year, “vehemently stated that there would be contact visitation at BCCY-WF. He also testified that OJJ will hopefully be able to offer transportation for parents to and from [Angola].”

But multiple declarations said visitation was practically non-existent. 

“No one from my family can come visit me here,” Daniel D. said in his June 26 declaration. “They often visited me when I was at Bridge City. The distance is too far for them to come here.” 

The drive from Bridge City, just outside New Orleans in Jefferson Parish, to Angola is more than two hours. 

Utter said shortly after the children were transferred to the renovated death-row facility, advocates and attorneys identified problems. 

“We became aware of what was happening as soon as we started talking to kids that were placed in Angola,” he said. “And as soon as we learned we started to get the facts in front of the court.” 

Harsh punishment: Solitary confinement and pepper spray

Juveniles living at the Louisiana State Penitentiary said they have been put in solitary confinement when they arrived and for disciplinary infractions while living there. When Daniel D. arrived at Angola he was kept alone in his cell for three days, except for when he would be taken out to shower, he said. In his declaration he said he spends 15 hours-a-day, from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., by himself in his cell. 

In his July 11 declaration, Charles C. said that for nearly one week he and the other teens in his pod had been locked alone in their cells for 23 hours and 52 minutes per day, only released to take showers, at which time they were handcuffed and shackled. 

“Louisiana has engaged in a practice of group punishment in using solitary as punishment for the young people,” Utter said. “Louisiana has escalated the punishment of these young people by keeping them in their cells all day long. Kids are at risk for their health and safety.” 

In an expert statement filed as an exhibit Monday, Craig W. Haney, a professor and expert in law and psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, noted the psychological damage that solitary confinement can inflict on adults and children alike. 

“For youth, this risk of harm is even greater because of their significantly well-established vulnerability; unlike adults, adolescents are at especially formative stages in their lives and are in the process of ongoing social, psychological and physiological development,” Haney wrote, adding that for youngsters with mental illness, “isolation is likely to be especially harmful and dangerous.” 

Research on incarcerated teens has found that more than 60% of youths who committed suicide while detained had previously been placed in solitary confinement, Haney wrote.

Haney described a phenomenon called “isolation panic,” in which confined people experienced “rage, panic, loss of control and breakdowns, psychological regression and a build-up of physiological and psychic tension that led to self-harm.” 

Haney’s declaration said while all incarcerated people could show the above symptoms, isolated panic was more prevalent in people who spent time in solitary confinement than in people who remained in general population housing while imprisoned. 

In his July 11 declaration, Charles C. said OJJ guards used pepper spray on the teen held in the cell next to his and it spread to his area. Guards placed him and other other teens detained in the shower in handcuffs and shackles, he said. 

“The water did not get all the mace off my body,” Charles C. said. 

He described an incident the day before in which a guard allegedly threw him against the wall, breaking the skin on his back. 

“Being maced the next day, on my open wound, really burned and hurt,” he said. 

In filings in January, declarations from teens seeking to join the case said they had been maced. 

‘It’s hard to sleep because it’s so hot’

In addition to being held inside their cells for lengthy periods of time, the teens have endured extreme heat, attorneys wrote. Like much of Angola, the cell blocks where the teens are detained are not air conditioned. Fans are used to mitigate the heat, but  the cells, in which they said they have been held for at least 15 hours per day, have no windows and only a small vent. Temperatures in Louisiana have been stifling this summer, with heat indexes soaring well above 100 degrees for much of June and July. 

“I’m often thirsty,” Charles C. wrote in his declaration. “It’s hard to sleep because it’s so hot. When the power goes out, we don’t even have the fan.” 

Tap water at the prison is substandard, Charles C. wrote in June. Guards are supposed to provide water and ice, but, according to the teens, they have not been bringing them frequently enough. 

“All people, including young healthy people with no known medical problems, are at risk for heat related disorders during persistent exposure to a heat index above 88 degrees Fahrenheit,” Susi U. Vassallo, a physician and health expert, wrote in a declaration on the dangers of sustained exposure to extreme heat. 

She said even seemingly healthy young people may be at risk for heat-related illness, especially those with undiagnosed health risks, such as heart problems. 

SPLC report condemns juvenile confinement

The state’s decision to send youth to Angola prison prompted advocates at the Southern Poverty Law Center to conduct research into and produce a report on Louisiana’s juvenile justice system

The report, released Tuesday, found that incarcerated juveniles are more likely to reoffend and commit suicide. The report also found that the cost of those poor outcomes is extraordinarily high: about $157,000 per year. That’s nearly $40,000 more than the cost of sending a child to a public school in Louisiana as well as tuition, housing and books at Louisiana State University and Tulane University combined. 

It found that rhetoric about youthful “superpredators” in the 1990s that portrayed some young people, particularly Black youth, as morally depraved and able to commit crimes including murder, rape and assault, has persisted even juvenile arrests have significantly declined (Youth arrests are down 80% in the U.S. and 67% in Louisiana.” 

It found that, inline with the national trend, Louisiana’s Black youth are overrepresented in carceral settings. In 2019 Black juveniles represented 79% of all young people incarcerated in the state. 

The SPLC report underscored attorneys and advocates concerns for the youths held at the adult prison, noting that last year, Louisiana legislators passed new restrictions on solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, after an investigation by NBC News, the Marshall Project and ProPublica revealed teens were being held in isolation for days or weeks at a time. 

The new restrictions require the state to isolate minors for no longer than eight hours a day, unless they continue to be a threat to themselves or others. The OJJ is supposed to call a juvenile’s guardians within hours of placing them in solitary confinement. 

Utter said he could not comment on whether or not the agency is following this protocol. 

The report also noted that youth advocates are worried about juveniles in detention of any kind in Louisiana getting adequate education. The state requires that students up to age 19 receive at least six hours of instructional time per day and 177 days of instruction per year. 

Charles C.’s July 11 declaration suggests students at Angola are not getting the required hours of learning, especially when they are in lockdown. 

“The last time I was provided access to ‘school’ was last Tuesday,’” he wrote. 

The report recommends raising the age that a minor can be incarcerated or prosecuted in the Louisiana juvenile justice system — currently 10 years old. It also suggests that the state stop incarcerating children for non-violent offenses, invest in alternatives to youth imprisonment that keep children in their communities and emphasize rehabilitation and “completely ban the practice of incarcerating youth in adult facilities.”

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Before joining Verite, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reported on people behind bars in immigration detention centers and prisons in the Gulf South as a senior reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration...