Following a slew of alarming headlines about violence, mismanagement and frequent escapes from Louisiana’s juvenile lockups, the state’s governor offered a new solution last week: temporarily moving teens to the notorious Angola prison for adults.
The decision tramples modern principles of juvenile justice and could lead to violations of federal law, youth advocates, lawyers and experts in juvenile corrections say.
“It’s abhorrent,” said Glenn Holt, a former top official in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system who now serves as the deputy director of Arkansas’ juvenile justice agency.
“Moving kids to your adult maximum security prison campus, where you send adults to die,” he said, “is the worst juvenile justice policy decision probably ever made in modern times.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced the decision to move the teens to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on July 19 after a series of chaotic fights, injuries and breakouts from the Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans, including an alleged carjacking by an escaped teen during which a man was shot. Residents in the surrounding community say they’re living in fear and have called for the facility to be shut down.
At a news conference, Edwards stressed that the Angola move is temporary, aimed at reducing the population at the troubled Bridge City until more secure youth facilities can be built or renovated. The state has too many teens in its care to consider closing Bridge City entirely, he said.
“I understand that this is not the perfect or the ideal plan,” Edwards said. “But I do believe that the situation demands an immediate response, and these are the best options we currently have to ensure the safety of the youth, the staff and the community.”
Roughly 25 teens will be housed in a building near the entrance of the massive Angola complex as soon as next month, after some renovations, Edwards said. The building will be overseen and staffed by employees of the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ).
“They will not have contact with adult inmates and will continue to receive all of the services they currently receive through OJJ, including education,” Edwards said.
Federal law requires that juveniles be separated — by both sight and sound — from adult prisoners. The goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate youths so they can return to their communities, not to punish them.
Angola’s 18,000 acres make it one of the largest prison campuses in the world. It has enough space between buildings that the teens can be held far from adult prisoners, but advocates and experts questioned whether the state would actually be able to keep youths separate.
“There are common facilities, like the infirmary,” said Hector Linares, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. “If a youth gets sick or gets injured, how are they going to maintain sight and sound separation for youth that need to go to the infirmary?”
If teens are outside getting exercise, he asked, how will the state make sure they don’t encounter prisoners called trustees who do the bulk of the work to maintain the buildings and grounds at Angola and prepare and deliver food?
“They’re asking us to just trust them that they’re doing this legally and properly,” Linares said, but he noted that both the Office of Juvenile Justice and the state’s Department of Public Safety & Corrections have troubled histories. Both have been the subject of federal interventions in recent decades due to civil rights violations. “They have to show us how they plan to meet the requirements of these laws, not just say, ‘Oh, it’s a separate building. Trust us.’”
During last week's news conference, state officials said Angola prisoners will not be providing maintenance or other services in the reception center building where the teens will be housed. Instead, the state is offering housing on or near the Angola campus for juvenile justice staff who agree to temporarily relocate to the penitentiary in a rural stretch of northern Louisiana near the Mississippi line. The remote prison, a former plantation surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, is about two-and-a-half hours from New Orleans.
“In terms of the questions regarding the cleaning, staffing and educational offerings — this will be managed by OJJ and not Corrections,” Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Edwards, wrote in an email. “DOC has found a place to house the youth, but OJJ will be in charge of their care. The youth will be in the OJJ system, they will simply be temporarily housed elsewhere.”