Officials plan to temporarily move about 25 teenagers from the Bridge City Center for Youth to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — a move that shows the dire situation inside Louisiana’s youth lockups and that drew condemnation from former corrections officials, advocates and parents.
When they arrive at Angola, youths from the troubled New Orleans-area facility will be housed inside an old building that once held the infamous prison’s death row.
The building near the entrance to the sprawling penal colony, the largest maximum-security prison in the country and a former slave plantation, has also seen use as a reception center over the years. Recently, it housed adult female inmates relocated after the state women’s prison was damaged in the 2016 flood.
It contains one-and two-person cells and a dormitory area, and part of the building was previously used to hold men sentenced to die, said a corrections official familiar with the facility.
Questions over the plan abound: Where will the youths be taken when they are sick? Where will they eat their meals and get exercise? Who will clean the buildings?
And how will all of these things be done without putting teenagers near adult inmates accused of some of the worst crimes?
Several years after Louisiana lawmakers promised to refocus the justice system on reforming and rehabilitating youths, experts fear this last-ditch effort to quell a crisis could do exactly the opposite — increase the chance that they land back in prison as adults.
“I don’t know that any plan where kids are placed in Angola is in any way in the interest of the child or of society,” said Hector Linares, a professor of youth justice law at Loyola University and former youth public defender in New Orleans.
The building where the juvenile prisoners will be housed is a “secure, independent housing unit,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a Tuesday news conference in Baton Rouge. He sought to reassure reporters that the youths will have no contact with adult inmates and that they will receive all the services they get at Bridge City from the Office of Juvenile Justice, including education.
Yet officials acknowledged the move shows how dire the situation has become inside facilities like Bridge City.
“It’s not what anybody wants to hear, and we understand that,” Bill Sommers, deputy secretary for Office of Juvenile Justice, said at the news conference.
The announcement came after six youths escaped from Bridge City last week. It was just the latest breakout from the aging brick facility near the Mississippi River, which last month saw corrections department and State Police staff arrive to provide relief after an earlier escape.
All of the escapees were eventually apprehended last week, but not before they allegedly committed several crimes across Jefferson and Orleans parishes — including a carjacking Uptown, during which a man was shot and left in critical condition.
At Angola, Office of Juvenile Justice employees, who are specifically trained to work with juveniles, will staff the building instead of corrections department guards who work with adults, Edwards said. The governor said the prison’s expansive size will help keep the adults and youths apart.
Sommers said youths will receive all the same “therapy, substance abuse, education” and other rehabilitative programming the Office of Juvenile Justice offers while they’re on Angola’s grounds.
“To be clear, they will not under any circumstances have contact with adult inmates,” Edwards said. “This structure is completely separate and apart from the camps that house adult inmates.”
‘You have to go to other places for other stuff’
But many experts say that’s no simple task — at least not if the state is giving their young charges the rehabilitative services required by federal law.
There is a long history in the United States of putting youths in adult lockups during emergencies — often with disastrous results, said Vincent Schiraldi, a former Washington, D.C., juvenile corrections official and director of Rikers Island in New York City. He now sits on the board of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, a reform-focused advocacy institute at Columbia University.
Last fall, New Orleans evacuated children from its juvenile detention center to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, the state’s second-largest prison, as Hurricane Ida bore down on the Gulf Coast. That move drew criticism and a lawsuit from youth advocates, saying youths suffered trauma inside the facility and came into contact with adults held there.
“We hear this over and over and over again: ‘Don’t worry, we can keep them apart.’ And we’ve inevitably seen throughout the history of juvenile justice that when you put kids in adult facilities, they always somehow come into contact with adult prisoners and it ends disastrously,” Schiraldi said. “Visitation, food, program space — each individual part of a prison isn’t a complete prison.”
“You have to go to other places for other stuff,” he said. “At first, often, correctional officials are very careful. But over time, they get lax. “
Some question whether the move is even legal. Federal law says children held in detention facilities must be kept outside the “sight and sound” of incarcerated adults, and rehabilitative and educational programs must be provided to incarcerated youths who need it.
Edwards and Sommers pledged those programs will remain available to the youths at Angola. And they say Office of Juvenile Justice staff will perform the duties that usually fall to adult inmate workers, like custodial work.
Yet the plan still carries legal risk, according to Linares, the Loyola professor.
It would be “pretty difficult” to maintain total sight-and-sound separation on the grounds of the adult facility, Linares said; for example, it’s unclear how youths would receive medical care from the prison’s infirmary without making contact with adult inmates.
He also wonders how the state agency will staff the building to properly provide children with special education needs, who make up a higher rate of incarcerated youth.
“I understand that, in this case, they’re saying it’s not like they’re going to be in Angola’s general population,” Linares said. “Notwithstanding that, there are real legal concerns about how it’s going to be done properly and whether it even can be done properly.”
Reached by email Thursday, a corrections department spokesperson referred questions to Edwards’ office, which did not respond to a list of questions about the plan. An Office of Juvenile Justice spokesperson responded to the same questions with a link to a video of Tuesday’s news conference.
‘Embarrassing for the state of Louisiana’
Linares and other advocates are also concerned youths will be held in some of the old death row building’s individual holding cells — a possibility that raises more potential legal wrinkles for officials.
The building’s housing unit contains a dormitory and single and double rooms, the corrections official said. It’s not clear how the roughly 25 youths would be divided among them.
In the most recent legislative session, state lawmakers passed a law curtailing how children may be held in solitary confinement inside state-run facilities. They enacted eight-hour time limits on such punishment — except when a juvenile poses a continuing physical threat to themselves or others — and required mental health checks for youths slated for a period of solitary confinement.
If Louisiana runs afoul of federal rules, money from the federal government could be on the chopping block, Schiraldi said — though it likely wouldn’t be much.
“OJJ federal funding has diminished over time so it’s not going to be a big chunk of change,” he said. “It’s more embarrassing for the state of Louisiana to lose this money.”
The plan has many in the legal system in the dark about details: Which defendants will be moved to Angola? When? And for how long?
At the news conference, Sommers said only the “most troubled youth” will be sent to the grounds of the state penitentiary. He said 24 youths detained for sex offenses will remain at Bridge City, or about half of the 50 or so juveniles housed there.
It’s not clear where youths accused of midlevel offenses — those accused neither of violent crimes nor sex crimes — will go, said Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
Gassert, Schiraldi and Linares all proposed short-term alternatives to sending youths to Angola. The Office of Juvenile Justice could take measures to immediately shore up staffing, Gassert said. Schiraldi and Linares proposed removing youths accused of low-level crimes from detention facilities immediately and returning them to their homes with programming, to give staff more bandwidth in the facilities.
“The problems (at the juvenile detention facilities) are a result of failures to run the facility properly, whether they don’t have the right staff, or enough staff, or whatever reason,” Gassert said. “Putting kids in an adult prison is certainly not going to do anything to improve behavior of young people, and it certainly won’t do anything to help the issues at the other facilities.”
‘Badge of honor’
Sommers and Edwards said Tuesday that Bridge City will not be shut down, as some have advocated for in the wake of recent escapes. Instead, about half its population will be moved to Angola while workers refurbish a wing of the infamous Jetson youth prison in Baker, where the youths slated to go to Angola will eventually be settled.
The decision to reopen Jetson has itself drawn scrutiny. The state pledged in 2008 to close the troubled facility and proceed with reforms it had promised years earlier. When the prison’s doors finally shut in 2014, it was because officials deemed Jetson an “obsolete, unsafe, and costly physical plant” that “does not fit into our reform efforts.”
In the long term, Edwards said the Office of Juvenile Justice plans to build several new, small, secure youth detention facilities in hopes of easing the burden on aging facilities like Bridge City.
To Linares, the move to Angola signals deep problems for the juvenile justice system, which pushed forward with reforms years ago but has recently been plagued by a cycle of continued escapes amid staffing and funding woes.
Andrew Hundley, who was convicted of second-degree murder at age 15 and was once incarcerated at Angola, now runs the nonprofit Louisiana Parole Project. He fears sending kids there will have an impact that reverberates beyond the prison’s grounds.
“Being at Angola, for an immature, naïve kid is a badge of honor,” Hundley said. “The problem is, they’re going to take that with them whenever they go home, and that’s not a good thing.
“They’re going to be in an isolated environment there, and they’re not going to experience what Angola really is,” he said. “But they’re going to believe that they can handle that situation. That’s an unfortunate mindset to put them in.”
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.