by Bobbi-Jean Misick, Verite, Louisiana Illuminator
September 1, 2023
The state of Louisiana on Wednesday withdrew from an agreement to temporarily stop transferring incarcerated youth to a former death row unit on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The reversal came at the end of the final day of a hearing in Baton Rouge federal court on an emergency motion — filed by civil rights attorneys representing incarcerated juveniles — asking U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to order the state to remove the teenagers already held in the controversial facility and to block future transfers there.
On Wednesday, Dick said she planned to issue a ruling on the motion on Friday, Sept. 8.
Earlier this month, Dick asked the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice to agree to a temporary stay of transfers pending her decision. The state agreed. But on Wednesday, its attorneys said OJJ was revoking the agreement to ensure adequate security within the juvenile detention system following the the Sunday (Aug. 27) escape of four detainees from one of the state’s youth detention facilities, the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie.
The state first announced the plan to move some juveniles to Angola in July 2022 in response to a series of violent episodes at OJJ detention centers and pending the completion of a secure unit at the Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe. Within weeks of the announcement, attorneys filed a suit seeking to stop the plan. Last fall, however, Dick allowed the state to move ahead, on the condition that youths sent there would not be subjected to harsh living conditions or discipline and that the state would provide them the same level of services there that it is legally required to provide at other juvenile facilities.
The emergency motion filed last month in the ongoing suit argues that the state has not lived up to its promises and has been violating the youths’ civil rights by holding them at the notorious adult prison. The attorneys argue that teenagers sent there have been pepper-sprayed by guards and routinely confined to their cells for large parts of the day, and that educational services there are woefully inadequate.
Following the hearing, Lemuel Montgomery, III, an attorney for the state, said closing the facility at the adult prison, called the Bridge City Center for Youth-West Feliciana, would deeply compromise public safety.
“There’s going to be a real risk if the facility ceases to operate,” Montgomery said. “Witness after witness said Louisiana needs this facility to keep those youth safe, to keep the staff safe and to keep the public safe.”
David Utter, lead attorney for the teens in the lawsuit, said the state’s rationale for ending the short-term agreement was “deeply flawed.”
“The state fails to acknowledge that this is an incredibly broken juvenile justice system,” Utter said. “Rather than address their own problems … they’re gonna blame the kids, and they’re just gonna keep on mistreating kids by putting them in Angola.”
Pepper spray, escape attempts and ‘non-compliant’ youth
Throughout the hearing, which began on Aug. 15, attorneys for the state made the case that the Angola unit provides an adequate level of security to house particularly troubled youths, which they argue is not available in dedicated youth detention centers.
Lt. Col. Travion Gordon, a security supervisor at the West Feliciana unit, on Tuesday testified that juveniles at the facility have documented violent and disruptive behavior. He said he’d known some of the teens since they were 12 or 13 years old through working security at another facility, and had seen some of them enter the juvenile justice system multiple times. He said some youth will continue to be disruptive until they turn 18 and can be tried in criminal court.
In his testimony, Gordon said confining youth to their cells when they are “non-compliant” is necessary to keep the rest of the teens in compliance.
“When they see another youth being non-compliant, they follow the youth,” Gordon said.
Gordon said that the highly secure unit, which has barred cells unlike the open-dorm layout in dedicated youth detention centers, keeps youths from stealing from each other during sleeping hours, or organizing escapes or assaults on other detainees or security staff. Asked about one detainee who managed to get through a fence on the property, he said that the layers of security and Angola’s remote location kept the teenager from completing the escape.
“I knew he was gonna have to get through two more gates and he was gonna have to go through some woods that’s blocking out the sun,” Gordon said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs had alleged that the state was subjecting teens to conditions similar to solitary confinement, which the state prohibits for juveniles except as a short-term safety measure.
A cell restriction log sheet for June, presented to Gordon during cross examination by attorneys for the youths, showed that one youth had been on cell restriction for 14 consecutive days and was later placed on cell restriction for four more consecutive days that month.
But Gordon echoed other OJJ staff members who said during cell restriction — when youth are confined to their cells — they are not truly alone, as they engage with staff and are given educational and mental health programming.
“What the evidence has shown is that when they’re in there, they’re being communicated with, they’re being fully programmed, they have opportunities to leave and have visits to the medical unit, to their case manager, those kinds of things,” Montgomery said. “So the isolation, the aloneness that normally comes along with what people think of as solitary confinement, that’s not in play here.”
Gordon and other staffers claimed during the hearing that guards rarely use pepper spray. But according to a chemical agent log introduced by the plaintiffs, guards pepper-sprayed teens five times in June alone.
“This system at Angola is one of the most punitive I’ve seen,” Utter said in an interview. “There’s no question that it’s really hurting kids.”
‘Helping them get better’
As the hearing came to a close this week, attorneys for the state argued that despite being in a prison unit designed for adults on death row, youth who are transferred to the West Feliciana facility are being given proper services, including mental health evaluations and treatment, to facilitate their rehabilitation.
“[Staff are] committed to the education and the programming of the youth and to helping them get better, so they can function in society on the outside when they get out of the system,” Montgomery said.
Youth sent to the unit at Angola are placed there temporarily and are returned to general population juvenile justice centers once they complete programming based on cognitive behavioral therapy, OJJ leadership said. One youth, identified by the alias Daniel D., has been sent to the facility in West Feliciana three times since it opened in October.
The facility’s social services counselor, Sandry Bryant, who testified on Tuesday. administers that rehabilitation program. Throughout the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorneys called witnesses who criticized Bryant’s lack of credentials. Bryant is not a licensed social worker and does not have a provisional counseling license.
Under questioning from Utter, she testified that she is not trained to identify depression in adolescents, a concern for the plaintiffs’ attorneys in part because of the amount of time the youths have spent alone in their cells.
“You don’t know anything about the impact of locking a kid in their cell for 20 hours a day?” Utter asked Bryant during cross-examination. “No,” Bryant replied.
In emotional testimony, Bryant pushed back on the characterization that she was unqualified for the job.
“It is disheartening for me to be sitting here, knowing what I do and the impact that I have with the kids and the parents,” Bryant said. “For me to be sitting here today, having to be humiliated is hurtful because I know what I do and I love what I do.”
The July motion asks for a preliminary injunction, which would only apply while the case — which seeks an order to shutter the facility permanently — is ongoing. The motion also provided Dick with options for alternative relief short of halting transfers and removing youths already housed at Angola.
But after the hearing ended, Utter said the plaintiffs remained committed to stopping the state from continuing to use the Angola facility and would continue to seek its permanent closure should Dick opt to keep it running.
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