New Orleans Planned For Years To Send Juvenile Detainees To An Adult Prison During Hurricanes
New Orleans has planned for three years to evacuate underage detainees to an adult prison during hurricanes and other disasters, government evacuation documents show, though children advocates say it’s illegal to house juvenile detainees at facilities for incarcerated adults.
In 2018, the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center evacuation plan called for teens to be housed at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana. Forms submitted in 2020 and again in May of 2021 also list Dixon as the evacuation site for the detention center.
Ahead of Hurricane Ida, the city’s juvenile detainees actually ended up at a different adult prison. The 36 teenagers from New Orleans went to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, instead of Dixon, for five days.
The prison system said it couldn’t accommodate the teenagers at Dixon because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dixon is using the building where the teenagers would have stayed to isolate inmates receiving dialysis treatment, said Ken Pastorick, the prison system’s spokesman.
Dixon was also experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases in August shortly before Hurricane Ida hit.
“The housing unit that would have been used to house these offenders was occupied and unavailable,” Pastorick said in a provided statement Tuesday. “In addition, the unit at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center is more isolated from the prison, but was not available when the agreement was done in 2018.”
Pastorick and spokespeople for the City of New Orleans did not answer questions Thursday about why the juvenile detention center was expected to evacuate to Dixon in the first place. State officials have said the arrangement was appropriate because the teens were meant to be kept separately from incarcerated adults, but Louisiana law prohibits people who are underage and subject to jurisdiction of juvenile court from being held in an adult jail or lockup. The detainees who were evacuated range in age from 14 to 18.
Our clients tell us they were in lockdown all day long in solitary cells without air conditioning, without access to basic hygiene for days, and that the food was inedible to the point that most of them chose to go hungry rather than eat it.
Rachel Gassert, the policy director for Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, believes Dixon was originally chosen as the evacuation destination due to the prison’s youthful offender program. Incarcerated people under the age of 19 are housed together and receive special attention at Dixon, though Gassert said it still isn’t legal to send the juvenile detainees there.
The juvenile detainees from New Orleans are not only underage, but they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet said Gassert, whose organization provides legal representation to many of the detainees. Most of their cases will be handled in juvenile court. Inmates in the youthful offender program at Dixon have already been convicted of a crime, and even if they are underage, many of them were tried as adults. That’s how they ended up in the adult prison system, Gassert said.
The teens also weren’t sent to Dixon. They were sent to Hunt, which doesn’t have a program for people who are minors.
“The children were not evacuated to a safe location – they were evacuated to an adult prison, which is prohibited by law regardless of whether the children are separated from adults or not – precisely because adult prisons are not safe for children,” Gassert said in a written statement.
“Our clients tell us they were in lockdown all day long in solitary cells without air conditioning, without access to basic hygiene for days, and that the food was inedible to the point that most of them chose to go hungry rather than eat it,” Gassert said. “An agreement from 2018 only proves that this illegal plan has been in place for far too long. Hurricane season is not over. The city must put in place a new, legal evacuation plan immediately.”
The Department of Children and Family Services regulates juvenile detention centers in the state, and wasn’t told New Orleans center had evacuated to Hunt until after the hurricane. Juvenile detention centers aren’t required to tell the agency where they are evacuating, said Catherine Heitman, spokeswoman for the department.
“[The detention center’s] evacuation destination is allowed by the regulations: If the facility is located in the same building or on the grounds of any type of adult jail, lockup, or corrections facility, it shall be a separate, self-contained unit,” Heitman said in a provided statement. “All applicable federal and state laws pertaining to the separation of youth from adult inmates will apply. If it’s legal in non-evacuation times, it’s also legal during an evacuation.”
Hector Linares, a Loyola University law professor who specializes in juvenile justice, believes the evacuation violated the law. The state’s regulations only allow licensed juvenile facilities to be housed on the same grounds as an adult prison, and neither Dixon nor Hunt has a licensed juvenile facility, he said.
“They were clearly held in an adult jail or lockup, and they were clearly in the physical custody and control of [the prison system],” Linares said. “In addition to the statutory violation, I think there’s a constitutional violation as well.”
One parent whose child was evacuated to the adult prison said she wasn’t contacted by the center about the whereabouts of her child until the evacuation was over. She found out her 17-year-old had been at Hunt when he called her days after he had returned to New Orleans, on Sept. 11. She said her son told her his experience at Hunt was horrible, and that he saw an adult inmate while he was there.
She is the second parent of a juvenile detainee to say her child saw an adult inmate during the evacuation to Hunt.
“I was so angry. I was going to take it upon myself to go find me a lawyer and dig down into this, because I felt it wasn’t right,” said the parent, who asked not to be identified by name.
Reporter Julie O’Donoghue contributed to this report.