Throughout three days of testimony last week in a court case challenging the state of Louisiana’s decision to house young detainees in a former death-row unit at Angola, witnesses for the plaintiffs have described a situation where teenagers as young as 15 are housed in an area designed for adults with no communal space, the social services staff have no formal training in social work, and youth who break rules are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day for days on end. 

But the state’s first witness in federal court in Baton Rouge — a psychologist who helped the Office of Juvenile Justice create a cognitive behavioral program aimed at addressing the negative acts the teens were sent to the facility for — claims youth are successfully completing the program and are returning back to their original facilities.

Staff at the facility are doing a “wonderful job” by keeping teens busy and maintaining a structure and schedule that features frequent interaction with staff and social services, said Lee Underwood, a consultant on youth programming in juvenile justice facilities and a professor at Liberty University in Virginia, on the stand Friday (Aug. 18). 

The state’s juvenile justice office has been using the unit on the Louisiana State Penitentiary campus at Angola as a temporary detention center for the teenagers since October, in reaction to a series of violent incidents and escapes from state juvenile detention facilities last summer and to allow officials to finish building a new secure unit at the youth detention center in Monroe. Civil rights attorneys representing the young detainees have challenged the practice in a lawsuit, arguing that the conditions youths have experienced at Angola are harmful and unconstitutional

Witness testimony presented this month is part of an ongoing hearing after plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to force the state to stop transferring youths to Angola and relocate the roughly 15 teens still detained there. The state agreed Friday to temporarily halt transfers pending the outcome of the ongoing hearing, but that agreement doesn’t affect teenagers currently held at the unit. 

‘They’re stimulated’

Underwood, whose testimony began Friday and continued into Monday (Aug. 21), sought to chip away at claims by plaintiffs’ attorneys that the juveniles are subjected to solitary confinement and are not receiving the education and mental health services that the state is required to provide.  

Echoing earlier testimony of Office of Juvenile Justice administrators and staff, the psychologist used the words “cell restriction” to describe the practice of isolating youths in their cells for extended periods of time, noting that the youths are also receiving regular educational programming while locked in metal-barred cells. Under those conditions, youths still have access to sunlight and can still interact with other people at the facility, Underwood noted.

Underwood cited what the defense called a “study” listing the pros and cons of solitary confinement, noting that “cell restriction” for youths at Angola doesn’t fit the study’s definition for “solitary confinement,” which severely limits human interaction and requires prisoners to receive food through slots in solid metal doors. (Under cross-examination, Underwood admitted that the “study” was actually a blog post from the website of a law firm in New York state.)

During cross-examination, Underwood said he didn’t see the youths as “socially deprived”: “They’re stimulated,” he said.

Cell restriction should be used sparingly, Underwood acknowledged, but added that within the past six to eight weeks, youth being transferred to the facility have been older and more “aggressive and sophisticated in their criminality” than children he had previously seen admitted to the program.This “more violent” set of juveniles may have led to “an increased use of cell restrictions,” he said.

Underwood suggested that some youth prefer being placed in cell restriction because it keeps them safe from their “stronger…more aggressive” peers, as a defense attorney described them.

‘Completely at odds’ 

All of the detainees sent to the Angola unit are considered to have a “high risk” for violence, one OJJ official previously testified. The cognitive behavioral program spearheaded by Underwood is aimed at creating interventions to help those youths successfully return to their original facilities.

The unit, as presented in a state plan to the court last year, was supposed to be based on a framework, called the “Missouri Model,” developed by the Missouri Division of Youth Services. The Missouri Model emphasizes a therapeutic, rather than punitive, approach to behavioral intervention.

The plaintiffs’ expert witness — a former youth detention facility administrator who researches juvenile detention — has argued that although a program like the one Underwood created at the Angola unit might be therapeutic in theory, its implementation at Angola is anything but. Patrick McCarthy, the witness, has stated that it would be impossible to implement a therapeutic model at Angola in part because it was designed as an adult unit, and beyond that, a highly restrictive death row unit. The cells are barred, and it lacks adequate recreational and classroom space.

But in his testimony, Underwood claimed the secure nature of the Angola-campus facility works in favor of the cognitive behavioral program. Housing youth in a maximum security facility where they cannot easily escape aids in their acceptance of the program, Underwood said: “When kids realize that they can’t abscond or AWOL, they settle down.”

Underwood, who said he visits the facility once a month, also testified that staff are appropriately trained and qualified to provide social services to the youths. Underwood said he himself provides two hours of training in cognitive behavioral therapy to new facility staff and offers other training during his visits as well. 

During court proceedings, state officials have also indicated that such a program is returning to the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, where a similar program was previously housed. Following a riot in 2021 that injured staff and damaged the unit, officials transferred youth out of the facility. The new Swanson facility will include high ceilings and other design elements making it difficult for children held there to damage property or escape, according to OJJ Deputy Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson. (The previous teens at Swanson were too preoccupied with ways to escape the facility to focus on the program, Underwood claimed.)

Additional testimony in the hearing is set to begin next week.

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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...