A federal judge has approved the state of Louisiana’s plan to move troubled juvenile prisoners to the former death row wing at the infamous Angola prison, despite describing the plan as “untenable” and likely to “cause psychological trauma and harm”.
“While locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable,” Judge Shelly Dick wrote in a ruling on Friday. “The untenable must yield to the intolerable.”
The prison has a reputation as one of the most violent in the country.
In July, governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, proposed moving two dozen youth from the Bridge City Center for Youth in New Orleans to Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the US, which is built on the former grounds of a slavery plantation.
The plan was a response to a number of high-profile incidents at Bridge City, including a riot that saw 20 youth take over parts of the facility, as well as four escapes through 2022, including one incident where escapees allegedly committed a carjacking and left a man shot in critical condition.
State officials at the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) have since said the move is not an ideal one, and only meant to be temporary until renovations are complete on the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker, Louisiana.
“As OJJ has said many times, this is not an ideal solution, but it is the best temporary solution we have available to us to keep our youth safe, to keep our staff safe, and to keep our communities safe after recent incidents,” a spokesperson told The Appeal.
In August, a group of law firms sued the state in a class action suit to block the plan, arguing it was unconstitutional and violated federal laws mandating the absolute separation of incarcerated youth and adults.
One of the plaintiffs named in the action was Alex A, a 17-year-old inmate at Bridge City, who is on medication for a PTSD diagnosis, and told the court he so anxious about being transferred to Angola he was tearing his hair out.
“Youth break down and shed tears because of the prospect of being moved to Angola,” he added in a court filing.
He added that he was worried that at Angola, a remote facility, where children will be housed in windowless former death row cells with floor-to-ceiling metal bars, he wouldn’t have the same access to education and social services he gets at Bridge City, whose mission is rehabilitative not penal.
Juvenile justice advocates criticised the plan before and after the ruling.
The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights wrote on Monday in a statement that the decision “contradicts the evidence of OJJ’s inability to provide proper care and supervision to youth in its own facilities, upholding the myth that all we need to achieve safety is a stronger cage.”
“Moving children into the Angola facility will not solve the problems that OJJ has been facing,” the group added. “It will only ensure the past repeats itself: children will be held in solitary confinement, met with excessive use of force, and they will be denied the education and services they are entitled to and that are needed to reduce re-offending once they are released.”
In the Friday rulling, judge Dick acknowledged the potentially disastrous mental effects of moving children into the grounds of an adult prison, noting “the specter of the prison surroundings alone will likely cause psychological trauma and harm.”
However, the court also suggested that the higher-risk youth the state intends to move to the prison have presented threats of their own to their surroundings.
The ruling noted that Alex A, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, admitted to choking someone and breaking another person’s nose, as well as knocking a prison staffer unconscious and masturbating to a female correctional employee.
Vincent Schiraldi, a former head of the New York City department of corrections, told The Advocate in July that there’s a long, bad history of mixing youth and adult prisons. He noted that last year, during Hurricane Ida, youth were evacuated from New Orleans and held in St Gabriel, Louisiana’s second largest prison.
A lawsuit filed in October accuses the prison of subjecting youth to subpar hygiene, inedible food, and long periods of isolation in excessive heat. They also saw adult prisoners while being held at St Gabriel, the suit claims, in violation of the law.
“We hear this over and over and over again: ‘Don’t worry, we can keep them apart.’ And we’ve inevitably seen throughout the history of juvenile justice that when you put kids in adult facilities, they always somehow come into contact with adult prisoners and it ends disastrously,” he said. “Visitation, food, program space — each individual part of a prison isn’t a complete prison."
Louisiana says it will wrap the exterior fence of the proposed youth building in Angola with a fabric so children and adults wouldn’t see each other.
Transfers to the facility could start as soon as this week.
Louisiana has among the highest rates of youth incarceration in the country, according to 2019 data from the Annie E Casey Foundation, with roughly three times more kids per capita behind bars than more populous states like New York and two times more than California.