Lengthy isolation, sweltering heat: Attorneys seek emergency order against Angola youth lockup

Lengthy isolation, sweltering heat: Attorneys seek emergency order against Angola youth lockup
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Youth incarcerated at the temporary juvenile facility at Louisiana State Penitentiary were confined in sleeping quarters without air conditioning, held in extended isolation and were forced to shower while shackled and handcuffed, a new court filing says.

The emergency filing is the latest salvo in ongoing lawsuit launched last summer against Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Office of Juvenile Justice over their decision to house youth labeled particularly problematic in a building within the gates of Angola, the maximum-security adult prison in West Feliciana.

Attorneys for several incarcerated youths ask the court in the filing to order the state to remove teens from Angola and place them in facilities designed for juveniles that are not punitive — and to block the state from placing them in adult facilites.

Conditions at the facility, such as lack of air conditioning and holding youths in what amounts to solitary confinement, could seriously harm their physical and mental health — and in dire cases lead to death, according to declarations from experts in the filings. 

An ongoing legal battle

Officials have characterized the controversial lockup as a last-ditch solution for a system in need of a dramatic overhaul. In recent years the agency has faced criticism and pressure to answer for what advocates, former officials and state lawmakers describe as a deepening failure to maintain safety and some services required by law at its youth prisons.

One year ago, amid several high-profile escapes and riots at several OJJ secure care facilities last year, Edwards announced the plan to temporarily house certain youths in a new facility at Angola. The aim was to stabilize the system until a permanent facility in north Louisiana could be fully renovated.

The plan drew strong criticism from youth advocates and national juvenile justice organizations, who castigated state officials for apparently transitioning away from a holistic, therapeutic model of care designed for adolescents to one that mirrored adult prisons.

Last September, the original plaintiffs tried to get an injunction blocking the teens’ move to Angola while the lawsuit plays out in court. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Shelly Dick ultimately denied the request, calling the plan “disturbing,” but saying it did not appear to violate federal law.

A spokesperson for OJJ did not immediately return a request for comment.

Reports of violence, little education

Violence against those in custody — as reported by other teens incarcerated at the facility over the last six months — remains a problem, according to a new declaration from a youth at the Angola facility recorded on July 11

At one point the guards “maced a youth while he was handcuffed and shackled,” leading to spray filtering into the cell of the youth providing testimony, the filing says.

“The guards then put handcuffs and shackles on the entire tier and took us to the shower,” the declaration says. “The water did not get all the mace off of my body.”

Before the macing incident, the filing says the youth injured his back when a staff member threw him against a wall, breaking his skin.

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

He also notes in the filing that it had been several days since he had access to school, which he explains involves a computer and no teacher. Close to earning his high school diploma, he writes that “they keep promising that they’ll give me an education, but don’t.”

Stifling conditions as heat soars

Amid record-breaking heat over the last few weeks, the declaration says the tier where some youth sleep and are often kept in isolation for lengthy periods is not air-conditioned.

“They have a fan and are supposed to give us ice and water, but only provide it about half the time,” the filing says. “I am often thirsty. It’s hard to sleep because it’s so hot. When the power goes out, we don’t even have the fan.”

The only air conditioning access is at the school, he wrote.

Dr. Susi U. Vassallo, a physician who has testified on the effects of heat on incarcerated people in several federal district courts, said in another declaration that the youths “are at substantial risk of serious physical and psychological harm due to their extensive and continued exposure to high temperatures” this summer.

“Prolonged exposure to high heat indices places people — including younger and healthier people — at serious risk of death or permanent physical injury. People are also at risk of engaging in acts of self-harm when trapped in these conditions, powerless to cool themselves off,” she wrote.

Vassallo goes on to note that youth with medical or mental health conditions are more susceptible to heat-related injuries, and that those who take different types of medications may have problems with their bodies’ ability to thermoregulate.

She also cites publicly available weather data that show between June 6 and July 13 the heat index remained above 100 degrees.

“I would not dare to keep my dog in these conditions for fear of my dog dying,” she wrote. “Louisiana’s cruelty to animals laws would not support keeping a dog confined in this heat in a cage. And Louisiana law requires air conditioning in all juvenile detention centers.”

Extended isolation

On Tuesday, July 11, the youth in the declaration wrote that he had “been in my cell, along with everyone, all day since last Wednesday.”

He explained that the only time they were allowed out was to shower, which they were required to do wearing handcuffs and shackles for eight minutes.

“The rest of the day we are locked in our cells,” he wrote.

Craig W. Haney, a professor of psychology specializing in psychological data and legal issues, wrote in the filing that “a number of youth at OJJ Angola Unit are being subjected to living conditions that are similar or identical to solitary confinement.” He said this places them “at substantial risk of serious psychological harm.”

He also cited the potential for the experience of isolation to be “retraumatizing” for youth who, in many cases, have undergone “adverse childhood experiences” already.

“it is my opinion that the youth at the OJJ Angola Unit are subjected to inappropriate and dangerous living conditions,” he wrote. “The practice of locking children in their cells for long periods of time during which they are deprived of meaningful social contact and purposeful activity is not only painful, but places them at significant risk of serious harm.”

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About Mary Weyand 12338 Articles
Mary founded Scoop Tour with an aim to bring relevant and unaltered news to the general public with a specific view point for each story catered by the team. She is a proficient journalist who holds a reputable portfolio with proficiency in content analysis and research. With ample knowledge about the Automobile industry, she also contributes her knowledge for the Automobile section of the website.

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