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Judge: Louisiana State Penitentiary is no place for kids, state has 1 week to get them out of Angola

5 months 3 weeks 3 days ago Friday, September 08 2023 Sep 8, 2023 September 08, 2023 2:40 PM September 08, 2023 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE — A federal judge said Friday the state can no longer send its most-violent juvenile offenders to a youth prison on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, finding after seven days of testimony that the Office of Juvenile Justice routinely violated the constitutional rights of the dozens of children it had sent there.

The state has one week to shut down the center, which was established last year as a temporary home for the worst of the worst young offenders in the state's juvenile justice system. As of last week, there were about 15 youngsters on the Angola grounds.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, in a 45-minute session announcing her ruling, said the state and advocates for the youths had agreed that a "transitional treatment unit" like the one at Angola was intended to be remedial. 

"The facility screams 'prison,'" Dick said, reading from her order. The unit is "decidedly punitive and not rehabilitative."

Louisiana created the Bridge City Center for Youth in West Feliciana Parish last summer after a series a violent events at youth facilities across the state. The Angola site was set up for temporary use until a new facility opens at Monroe this fall.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state this summer, saying conditions had deteriorated at the Angola youth center in recent months. Teacher shortages led to shortfalls in education and staff increased the use of "cell restrictions" to maintain control over the youth. The advocates also complained that a lack of air conditioning made the unit unbearable.

The judge said Friday that the state had pledged to her last year that the Angola center would be a temporary facility, would hold only about 5 percent of the 375 youths in the OJJ system and would provide suitable education and mental health resources. She noted that the center had been open a year, had hosted 70-80 youths (more than 20 percent of the population) and lacked adequate staffing.

"Virtually every promise that was made was broken," Dick said.

A lawyer representing the youths said it was troubling to hear the judge recount details about the youths' lives at Angola.

"There was no joy in listening to Judge Dick talk about what the evidence showed about how these kids are being treated. Louisiana should be ashamed," said lawyer David Utter.

Lem Montgomery, representing the state, said the Office of Juvenile Justice faced a hard challenge.

"The balance between safety and security and programming and education, the youth needs, that's a hard balance with this particular population within this facility," Montgomery said in the moments after Dick announced her decision. "(It) takes a special kind of person to be able to do that."

A lieutenant colonel at the center had testified that cell restrictions were the only deterrent for the worst behavior, which he said included hitting people in the stomach with pipes, headbutting and jumping staff members or fellow youths. 

While under restrictions, the youths still had access to teachers and counselors. It was not akin to solitary confinement, Lt. Col. Travion Gordon testified at a hearing before Dick last month.

Dick had temporarily told Louisiana to stop moving youth to Angola, but when testimony wrapped up last week and Dick took the case under advisement, she said the state could resume transfers.

Gordon, in his testimony, said the violent youths would make a shank out of a toothbrush if given the opportunity. He said that restricting youths to their cells when they misbehave was necessary, otherwise,  "a kid is going to end up dead or in a coma."

After the ACLU finished presenting its case, Dick said that, to that point, it appeared Louisiana had shown a “deliberate indifference” toward juveniles held at the Angola center. She said it seemed the state was resigned to seeing youth misbehave, citing testimony from a state official who said he had replaced hundreds of televisions and not been bothered by that.

She also expressed concern that placing youths at Angola “is not a path toward public safety. It is a path toward hardening these youths.”

Earlier in the hearing, a co-creator of the rehabilitation program had testified that an uptick in violence, including — including bloodshed and broken bones — had led to an increase in cell restrictions. 

The state is building a new unit similar to the one at Angola at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe.

The Office of Juvenile Justice said it disagreed with Dick and would seek to reverse her decision.

“The West Feliciana Facility has allowed us to keep community members, staff, and youth in our care safe, but the plan has always been to close the temporary facility as soon as possible," it said. "While we disagree with the court’s ruling today and will be seeking an emergency writ, we will continue to explore every option available to us that ensures the safety of staff, community members, and youth in our care.”

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