The state of Louisiana may have violated the civil rights of dozens of juveniles it has sent to a temporary detention facility at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola over the past nine months, by allegedly subjecting the youths to “harmful conditions,” including solitary confinement, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

On Friday (July 28), attorneys with the federal agency’s Civil Rights Division submitted a “statement of interest” in an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit against the state over the transfers to a former death row facility at the adult prison, which began last year. Since the transfers began in late October, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice has sent between 70 and 80 of its detainees to Angola. 

The Justice Department statement comes after the attorneys representing the juveniles last month filed a motion for preliminary injunction that alleged 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, in violation of state and federal law, including their Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The motion asked U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick, who is presiding over the case in Baton Rouge, to order the state of Louisiana to cease transferring juveniles to Angola, and to move the ones currently incarcerated there. 

Justice Department attorneys wrote that they submitted the statement to assist Dick with her analysis of the motion and because the agency is legally responsible for ensuring that the youths’ constitutional rights are upheld.  

“If deprived of promised mental health and educational services and if subjected to isolation and other dangerous living conditions, youth in Angola are likely to suffer serious and irreparable harm to their physical and mental health,” the DOJ statement read.

In July 2022 Gov. John Bel Edwards and Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary William Sommers announced a 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. There were also concerns of overcrowding at juvenile facilities, officials said. 

Within weeks of the announcement, the attorneys filed suit, asking Dick to block the plan. She denied the request and allowed the youth to be transferred to the facility in Angola – which would be managed by the Office of Juvenile Justice  as a “temporary transitional treatment unit” – saying the teens presented an “intolerable” threat of harm to themselves and others. 

In an email, Office of Juvenile Justice spokesperson Nicolette Gordon said the agency cannot comment on “details of a pending lawsuit.” However, Gordon pushed back against some of the allegations from the plaintiffs in the case, saying the juvenile units are air conditioned and that the office “believes that the youth at the Center are receiving the care they need with very specific and targeted treatments.” 

Edwards’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

When Dick allowed the plan to go forward last year, she said mental health services and education services, including individual educational programs – which are required by federal law for children with disabilities – would not be interrupted for the youngsters sent to the facility in Angola.

But sworn statements from juveniles detained at the adult prison and submitted with the motion for preliminary injunction, claim the services were not being provided. 

“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.”

Charles C. also wrote in a subsequent statement on July 11 that he rarely sees a mental health counselor and had not received any in person visits with his family.

The Justice Department’s  statement of interest said if the allegations made against the state are true, “youth are particularly vulnerable to harmful conditions of confinement such as those alleged because their brains are still developing and they lack adequate coping mechanisms.” 

Citing a report on the effects of childhood trauma from the National Institute of Justice,  Justice Department attorneys noted in the statement that “the risk of harm is particularly acute for the youth at Angola, whom this Court has found are ‘likely already suffering from a history of trauma.’” 

The statement addressed the effects of solitary confinement on children at length. The motion for preliminary injunction alleged that youth were being detained alone in their cells for well over the eight sleeping hours each day that the court said they should be held. Multiple testimonies said a group of them had been in isolation for nearly 24 fours for several days. 

“The last two days I have been alone in my cell all day. I was not allowed to come out except to shower and I was not allowed to talk to anyone,” a sworn statement from Frank F., a pseudonym for one of the teens, said. 

The Justice Department’s statement supported expert testimony submitted by the youth’s attorneys,which noted that the critical developmental phase that young people are in leave them especially susceptible to long-lasting psychological and physical harm, including an increased risk of suicide, when exposed to solitary confinement for any length of time. 

“It is now widely recognized within the medical, psychiatric, and correctional communities that isolation inflicts particular and serious harms on children because of their developmental immaturity, brain development, and lack of effective coping mechanisms,” the statement read. 

David Utter, lead counsel in the ongoing class-action lawsuit against the state, called the support from the DOJ “gratifying.” 

“It’s also horrifying because they speak in great detail about the irreparable harm that holding kids in solitary under these conditions can cause,” Utter said. “I think the most significant thing is the consensus of the science around solitary confinement and kids. we’ve known for years that it’s damaging to adults and what the Department of Justice is saying here is that there’s no question that it should never be used on adolescents.”

A hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction in the case is scheduled for Aug.15.

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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...