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State to temporarily halt transfer of juveniles to Angola

ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms, center, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.
Photo Courtesy of Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms, center, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, the first day of a federal court hearing that will determine whether the state can continue to house juveniles in a former death row facility at Angola.

The state of Louisiana agreed on Friday (Aug. 18) to temporarily halt the transfer of youths from juvenile detention centers to a facility inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice has been using as a temporary juvenile unit for the better part of a year.

The agreement capped the fourth day of an ongoing hearing in Baton Rouge federal court on a July motion, filed by civil rights attorneys representing teenagers transferred to Angola, for a preliminary injunction that would force the state to halt transfers and move those currently detained there.

The arrangement is temporary. It will remain in place until U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick issues a ruling on the injunction. And it will not affect the youths currently being held in the facility.

Civil rights attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and law firms from Louisiana and around the country have been fighting against the use of the facility, a former death row unit, since last summer, when Gov. John Bel Edwards and then Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary William Sommers announced the transfer plans. They initially filed their class-action lawsuit against the state in August 2022, just weeks after the announcement.

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.

The attorneys representing the juveniles, mostly Black boys, previously tried to persuade Dick to halt the transfers. Dick denied the motion last September, but stipulated that the state should live up to a plan it presented to the court that guaranteed the youths would be provided the same level of services

But the state has not lived up to those promises, the attorneys alleged in their July motion. They claimed that the detainees were not being given a comprehensive education, special education programming or mental health counseling. They also said that children at the facility were subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement – even though state law prohibits its use for juveniles except as a short-term response to behavior that poses a safety risk — and other forms of punishment. On July 28, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” in the suit, saying that the conditions described in the motion, if true, would violate the children’s constitutional rights.

The motion also alleged that they have been placed in units without air conditioning during an exceptionally hot summer. However, according to testimony in the first three days of the hearing from OJJ guards, Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson and facility director Linda London, the facility is sufficiently air-conditioned. Nelson said he watched the units being installed before the state began transferring children to the unit and that at one point he’d seen guards in sweaters and jackets because the air conditioning was working so well.

As of the July motion, the Office of Juvenile Justice had transferred between 70 and 80 of its detainees in and out of the Angola facility, some more than once, according to the plaintiffs.

In testimony on Thursday, Nelson said the Monroe facility should be ready by late November or early December. In the meantime, Nelson said, the Angola unit is necessary to safely house youth and to ensure the safety of both the agency’s staff and the public.

The hearing is scheduled to continue into next week. It is not clear when Dick will rule on the injunction.

‘A tragedy all around’

The plaintiffs in the case have alleged that guards employ harsh tactics — including pepper spray and solitary confinement — to discipline the teenagers, some as young as 15, being held there.

On Wednesday, Daja McKinley, a guard supervisor who works at the facility — called the Bridge City Center for Youth – West Feliciana — testified about an incident where a teenager housed there was pepper sprayed for a disciplinary infraction.

On the witness stand, McKinley was shown security and body camera footage of the event — which was not made visible to members of the public in the gallery — as Meghan Matt, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, who is representing the juvenile detainees, asked her to describe it to the court.

The security and body camera footage showed McKinley, a guard supervisor, and Frank Edwards a guard, approach the teenage detainee’s cell. McKinley said the youth used a cup to toss liquid from his cell toilet at the guards. In response, she said, Edwards reached for his pepper spray canister and unloaded it.

“Things don’t normally happen like that,” McKinley told Meghan Matt, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana. “We can [usually] talk ‘em down.”

Though the video was obscured, the audio was on, and members of the public could hear the sound of hacking coughs from the cell. The pepper spray fumes spread into an adjacent cell, where another teenage boy was being housed. According to time stamps on the video footage that McKinley was asked to read aloud, it took roughly 14 minutes before guards took the boy away from the lingering noxious gas.

McKinley said in the roughly nine months that she had been a guard at West Feliciana, she believes that pepper spray has been deployed two or three times.

She also described the training she received on de-escalation when a youth appears to become a threat: give at least three verbal warnings then attempt to physically restrain the child and remove him to his cell. If the youth resists the guards and does not comply or begins to exhibit violent behavior, guards can use chemical agents to avoid the use of physical force. In his testimony on Thursday, Nelson, of the Office of Juvenile Justice, confirmed the process McKinley described.

Later on Thursday, expert witness Patrick McCarthy, a former youth detention facility administrator who researches juvenile detention, said that the de-escalation model was not informed by research on youth who have experienced deprivation and trauma.

McCarthy called the pepper spray incident played in the court “a tragedy all around.”

He also expressed concern over the many times this week that attorneys for the state — apparently making the case that such tactics were necessary — called the teens at West Feliciana “violent and aggressive,” when cross-examining witnesses called by the plaintiffs.

In her cross-examination, Anna Morris, who is representing the state, asked McKinley to detail violent assaults on juvenile justice staff at the facility. When Morris asked her to describe the size of the youth who was pepper sprayed at the Angola facility, an audible “Jesus Christ!” could be heard from Nancy Rosenbloom, a lawyer at the ACLU, representing the children.

“Would you feel comfortable if youth [at West Feliciana] moved in next door to you?” she asked.

McKinley was instructed not to answer.

Confinement in cells

The state prohibits juvenile facilities from holding youth in their cells for longer than eight hours outside of sleeping hours. But a guard at West Feliciana, Henry Patterson IV, said youth are placed in their cells at 5:30 p.m. each night and let out again after 7 a.m., a roughly 14-hour period.

And often their cell time continues well into the day.

Until very recently, the facility had only one active classroom, down from three, as a result of juvenile detainees damaging the other two, according to staff. (On Friday, officials announced that a second classroom had been reopened.)

When detainees from one of its two housing tiers were using the classroom, students in the other tier must get instruction from inside their cells. McCarthy said he calculated that depending on the day, youth can be assigned to their cells, without having a disciplinary infraction, for roughly 22 hours.

Guards also employ “cell restriction” — confinement for behavioral infractions — from damaging property to assaulting their peers or staff. All staff said cell restriction was not used as punishment, but rather discipline.

“We are teaching them accountability and responsibility,” Patterson said.

When questioned on the difference between cell restrictions and solitary confinement – which is a prohibited punishment for juveniles under state law – Nelson said on Thursday youth are able to interact with each other and staff, as the cells have bars rather than doors, and they still receive educational and mental health services while restricted.

McCarthy said kids “locked in a cage as people walk back and forth to observe them is one of the more dehumanizing environments that I’ve seen in my career.”

Youth are also confined to their cells for up to 72 hours during an orientation period when they’re first brought to West Feliciana. Nelson said juveniles sent to the facility are all considered to have a “high risk” of violence.

Earlier this week, Dick questioned staff on the use of restraints for youths in the facility, based on a recent visit. She said she observed a youth in handcuffs in the dining hall and three others playing cards while in handcuffs. London, the facility director, said during testimony on Tuesday that the teens were placed in handcuffs because officials at the facility had reason to believe they intended to harm staff members.

Education at West Feliciana

The plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction alleged that educational services were inadequate at the Angola facility. It included statements from teenagers housed there who claimed that they were attending classes sporadically and rarely had time in person with teachers.

“The last time I was provided access to ‘school’ was last Tuesday,” wrote one detainee, who identified by the pseudonym “Charles C.”

Joseph Gagnon, an expert in special and general education called by the plaintiffs, testified this week that students at the West Feliciana facility — and, he added, across the Louisiana juvenile justice system — appear to be receiving far fewer hours of education her week than is required by the state.

He said students at the facility logged just over 100 minutes of time on Edgenuity — an online education platform used by the Office of Juvenile Justice — per week, compared to the required 360 minutes of instructional time per day for all students, including those in juvenile detention.

Patrick Cooper, who was recently hired as a teacher at the facility, pushed back on some of Gagnon’s testimony. He noted that Gagnon only looked at students’ time on computer instruction time, not in-person instruction, and that many students there had trouble sitting at computers for hours at a time.

Patrick Cooper, who was recently hired there, testified that he was frustrated that in the first few days of school this year, he had no information on courses that the individual students were supposed to take or grade levels that they were on. He also did not have information on Individualized Educational Programming for students with learning disabilities.

Cooper said when he started there this month, there was a shortage of booklets that OJJ created to accompany Edgenuity.

“Those bumps made me upset,” he said. However, he said that he reported his concerns to OJJ administration and they’ve since been addressed.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Before joining Verite News, 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 between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She was also a 2021-2022 Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center. Her project for that fellowship on the experiences of Cameroonians detained in Louisiana and Mississippi was recognized as a finalist in the small radio category of the 2022 IRE Awards.

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