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Judge orders state to move youths held at Angola

Antonio Travis, center, with Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, joins local activists and lawyers for youth transferred to a former death row unit at Angola outside of the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge on Sept. 8, 2023. A judge ruled Friday that the state of Louisiana must remove youth housed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary by Sept. 15.
Photo Courtesy of Bobbi-Jeanne Misick/Verite News
Antonio Travis, center, with Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, joins local activists and lawyers for youth transferred to a former death row unit at Angola outside of the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge on Sept. 8, 2023. A judge ruled Friday that the state of Louisiana must remove youth housed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary by Sept. 15.

The state of Louisiana has been given one week to shut down a temporary youth detention center at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola following an order from a federal judge Friday (Sept. 8) that the state must stop transferring juveniles to the unit and move youths currently held there.

Ruling from the bench, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge federal court said the state must move the teenagers currently detained in the facility by Sept. 15. Dick agreed with civil rights attorneys seeking the unit’s closure, ruling that the punitive atmosphere of the detention center violates the youths’ constitutional rights and saying they have been “victimized, traumatized and significantly harmed” while being held there.

The order followed an emergency hearing that began in August afterlawyers for the youths asked Dick to order the state to stop using the facility. The attorneys alleged that juveniles held at the unit were subjected to extreme heat and conditions similar to solitary confinement and were not receiving educational and mental health services the state is required to provide youth in its care.

The request to move the youths is part of an ongoing class action lawsuit filed last August that initially sought to block the planned transfers to Angola from being implemented. Friday’s order grants them a temporary injunction, which will only apply while the case is pending. The plaintiffs’ attorneys are ultimately seeking an order that will permanently bar the state from using the unit to house juveniles.

Lem Montgomery III, an attorney representing the state, said he plans to seek a stay on Friday’s ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. “The ruling is going to make the OJJ staff, the youth within their care and the public less safe,” Montgomery said outside of the Baton Rouge federal courthouse Friday.

The state first announced the plan to move some juveniles to Angola in July 2022 in response to a series of violent episodes at state juvenile detention centers and pending the completion of a secure unit at the Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe. Within weeks of the announcement, civil rights attorneys sued to stop the plan. Last fall, however, Dick allowed the state to move ahead, as the state had promised to provide a therapeutic, rehabilitative program for a small number of youth. That program would offer adequate education, mental health and social services and keep children out of their individual cells, except during sleeping hours.

“This is a case of promises made and promises broken,” Dick said Friday.

During the hearing, which lasted eight days and was spread out over three weeks, attorneys for the youths called witnesses, including facility employees, to the stand to support their claim that the state had not lived up to its promises. Youths received less than two hours of school time a week per an online platform, one witness testified, compared to the six hours required a day. Other testimony and exhibits indicated youths are being held for long stretches of time in their cells and getting pepper-sprayed by guards, and that key staff aren’t adequately qualified or trained.

On Friday, Dick agreed that the youths were receiving a “significant lack of educational supports,” including a shortage of teachers and an overreliance on a digital education platform. She displayed photos of damaged classrooms presented earlier in the hearing, describing OJJ’s months-long efforts to repair them “abysmally slow.” She said she reviewed evidence showing the state disciplined children by withholding contact from their families, citing a mother who was unable to communicate with her son for three consecutive weeks.

Dick also called the agency’s placement of youths in their cells for long stretches of time “defacto solitary confinement,” which state law bars for juveniles.

After Dick delivered her remarks, David Utter, lead council for the youths, told reporters he found it powerful that testimony from the unit's guards and other juvenile justice staff “spoke to a punitive environment.”

Attorneys for the state and Office of Juvenile Justicehad defended the state’s approach, arguing the Angola facility was critically needed to separate particularly troubled youth from their peers at other OJJ centers and that the youths were successfully completing a behavioral therapy program at the Angola unit.

‘I think we failed them’

Joseph Gagnon, an education expert, testified during the hearing that students at Angola logged roughly 100 minutes of time per week on Edgenuity — an online education platform used by the Office of Juvenile Justice — compared to a state requirement of 360 minutes of instructional time per day. He also pointed to logs that appeared to show teachers from other facilities rarely visiting students during a time period when the facility did not have any full-time teaching staff.

Shenell Deville, OJJ’s director of education, said Edgenuity only made up a fraction of the educational services that students received. Multiple witnesses testified that while two out of three classrooms were unusable, students took turns receiving education in the remaining classroom and in their cells, where workbooks were exclusively used. Deville acknowledged the facility did not have any full-time teaching staff for a time but pointed out that the principal and teachers from other OJJ facilities were visiting the Angola unit.

A recently hired teacher at the facility, Patrick Cooper, said when the school year began on Aug. 1, he had no information on courses that individual students were supposed to take or grade levels that they were on. Cooper also lacked information on individualized educational programming for students with learning disabilities, he testified.

Cooper has since resigned. The one teacher that remains, Levelle Walker, has no training in education, Gagnon observed under oath. Deville said OJJ was attracted to Levelle’s background in criminal justice.

Much of the hearing was dedicated to figuring out whether the long periods of time many youths are required to spend in their cells fit the definition of solitary confinement. When youth are transferred to the unit, they are initially held in their cells for between 48 and 72 hours for what OJJ officials call an “adjustment period.” The teens are also confined to their cells for disciplinary infractions. One youth was in his cell for 14 consecutive days and a group of teens on one cell block were held in their cells for one week.

Under Louisiana law, juveniles cannot be subjected to solitary confinement. Witnesses for the state, including OJJ Deputy Secretary Curtis Nelson, facility director Linda London and Dr. Lee Underwood, a clinical psychologist who designed the cognitive behavioral therapy program youth undergo when they are sent to Angola, argued confinement of teens to their cells is not solitary confinement because they are still interacting with guards and social services and mental health providers.

But the “cell restrictions” — the state’s term for confining youth to their cells — are “dehumanizing,” testified Patrick McCarthy, an expert for the plaintiffs. McCarthy said 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 they lack adequate recreational and classroom space.

Multiple Office of Juvenile Justice employees testified that pepper spray was used sparingly against the youth. But according to a chemical agent log, guards pepper-sprayed teens five times in June alone.

On Aug. 18, the state agreed to temporarily halt the transfer of youths from juvenile detention centers to the facility at Angola until Dick issued her ruling. But on Aug. 30, the state withdrew its agreement following the escape of four detainees from a youth detention center in Bunkie.

Antonio Travis, a youth organizing manager for Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Youth, called Dick’s ruling bittersweet on Friday.

“Those young boys were traumatized by that experience. I think we failed them,” Travis said. “Those Black boys have been exposed to a place that used to be a plantation. … That’ll follow them the rest of their lives.”

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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