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Lawsuit filed against New Orleans after juveniles evacuated to an adult prison during Ida

Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children executive director Gina Womack speaks about lawsuit against the City of New Orleans with Hector Linares and Grace Bronson of Loyola Law Clinic at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center.
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children executive director Gina Womack speaks about lawsuit against the City of New Orleans with Hector Linares and Grace Bronson of Loyola Law Clinic at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center.

Loyola University's Law Clinic filed a suit Tuesday morning in Orleans Civil District Court against the City of New Orleans after evacuating children held at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center to an adult prison during Hurricane Ida.

During a Tuesday press conference, the Law Clinic’s officials said the suit was filed on behalf of a mother — listed as Jane Doe — of one of the children who was transferred and advocacy group Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, or FFLIC.

The suit said JJIC’s policy to evacuate juveniles to adult facilities violates Louisiana’s constitution and a state law that protects children convicted of a crime in juvenile court from being held in adult correctional centers.

“As soon as I heard what had happened, it became pretty clear that what was happening was illegal,” said Loyola University law professor Hector Linares, who is representing the plaintiffs.

The children were evacuated on Aug. 27, two days before Ida made landfall in southeast Louisiana. But the public did not learn that the children were sent to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, an adult prison in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, until two weeks after the storm passed.

A joint statement from the city and the Department of Corrections issued last month said New Orleans “exhausted all efforts to locate a juvenile facility and requested assistance from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPS&C) to provide a safe and secure evacuation location.”

However, days after that statement was released, the Louisiana Illuminator reported that the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center had long-standing plans to evacuate children held at the facility to a different adult prison in the event of a disaster. As far back as 2018, the center’s evacuation plan listed Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana, as the facility to receive children from the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center.

According to the Illuminator, those plans remained in place in 2020 and in 2021.

A hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction that asks the court to prohibit the city from executing the portion of its evacuation plan that allows children to be sent to adult facilities is set for Oct. 18.

“As you know, we’re still in hurricane season,” Linares said. “Should we have another hurricane that requires evacuation, we thought it was urgent to get that order in place before the entire lawsuit was decided.”

The petition is asking for a judge to declare the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center’s evacuation policy illegal, according to Louisiana’s constitution, “and in direct violation” of Louisiana’s Children’s Code. It says the city’s policy violates three provisions in the code that prohibit:

  1. Pre-adjudication youth from being placed in detention centers that aren’t licensed by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, 
  2. Alleged delinquent children from being held in Department of Public Safety and Corrections facilities 
  3. Minors subject to the juvenile court system from being detained in an adult lockup or jail. 

It is also asking the court to order the city to develop an evacuation policy that complies with the children’s code and the state constitution.

Dr. Kyshun Webster Sr., the JJIC executive director, said in an emailed statement that "in coordination with the state, the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center took every precaution to ensure the health, welfare and safety of juvenile offenders in anticipation of Hurricane Ida’s landfall and in accordance with timely submitted emergency evacuation plans. The Juvenile Justice Intervention Center submits an emergency evacuation plan annually to its licensing authority, Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The 2021 plan was submitted to DCFS and gained approval.”

When asked to respond to the suit, a representative from the city said “we do not comment on active and or pending litigation."

Linares said he and children’s rights advocates had hoped that the city would have admitted wrongdoing in approving and implementing the policy and would have quickly changed it.

“It’s a shame that instead of listening to parents and youth advocates, the city has doubled down on its illegal policy,” Linares said.

Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends for Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said she was “rattled with emotions” on Tuesday.

She said parents of children sent to Elayn Hunt told her that their children did not eat during the five days they spent at the prison because they found the food to be inedible and that they were only allowed one shower during their nearly week-long stay.

With more than 20 years in advocacy for Louisiana’s incarcerated children, she remembered how children were trapped in adult facilities in Orleans Parish during Hurricane Katrina.

“If history [or] experience is the best teacher, then New Orleans still has a lot to learn,” Womack said. “Our children were once again an afterthought during Ida. Even laws were ignored.”

In an interview in September, Womack said the evacuation of the JJIC children to Elayn Hunt wouldn’t have happened if government agencies in charge of protecting the city’s youth had adequately reviewed the policy.

“I would think that every year, the powers that be would address and read it, look at the policies to make sure that they're the best policies and make sure that they're in line with juvenile justice reform,” Womack said, adding that the evacuation is just one example of how the criminal and juvenile justice systems continue to fail the state’s most vulnerable people.

She said one parent who contacted her was unable to evacuate and spent the days following Ida in her car, as her home had been damaged, and without any knowledge of where her child was for several days.

Womack would like to see increased action from the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission, or JJRAIC, which was established in 2003 to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. Critics have questioned the commission’s effectiveness, as it met for the first time in five years this January.

“Nearly 20 years went by and the system is still ineffective, and it's harming generations of children,” Womack said.

Womack said in order for the juvenile justice system to properly serve vulnerable youth, it needs accountability.

“It's a huge concern,” she said. “And it continues to show up at the worst time when we're in a disaster of crisis, such as hurricane season and the pandemic.”

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity 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 is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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