Incarcerated youth from across the state deemed the most troubled and aggressive could be moved to a building on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, one of the country’s largest and most notorious maximum security prisons for adults. Their relocation from existing juvenile correctional centers, where violence, escapes and staffing issues have become common, is part of a revised plan a state official discussed in federal court Wednesday.
Curtis Nelson, assistant secretary in the Office of Juvenile Justice, told Judge Shelly Dick that 24 to 30 young people in his agency’s custody who aren’t “responding to the open dorm strategy” of the state’s other youth lockups could be taken to Angola, where they would live in individual prison cells.
Nelson said he would focus on relocating youths – ranging from preteen up to 21 years old – who have attacked staff members and other young people in custody as well as those who have destroyed property at juvenile justice facilities.
The proposed juvenile justice facility at Angola would be used as a “transitional treatment unit,” where particularly challenging youth would spend four to six weeks for therapy before being sent back to a lower-security facility, he said.
State is no longer focused on Bridge City
This plan Nelson outlined in court differs from one that has been discussed publicly by Gov. John Bel Edwards and Bill Sommers, the deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice.
At a press conference in July, Edwards and Sommers announced they would open a temporary juvenile justice facility on the grounds of Angola in order to relocate about half of the incarcerated population at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. All of the young people housed at Bridge City who were not part of a specific sex offender program would be transferred to Angola, officials at the press conference said.
Edwards and Sommers held that press conference just a few days after a high-profile escape from Bridge City. Seven incarcerated youth broke out of the facility, and one of the young people allegedly shot a man in Uptown New Orleans before he could be apprehended. At the time, the Angola plan appeared to be a response from the governor to outrage from Jefferson Parish residents and elected officials, who were calling for Bridge City to be shut down.
Yet in his testimony this week, Nelson pushed back on the notion that incarcerated teens at Bridge City would be targeted for removal to the facility at Angola. He went out of his way to say one of the teens involved in the Bridge City escape may not end up going to the proposed transitional treatment unit at Angola at all.
Angola could be used longer than originally planned
Housing incarcerated youth at Angola may also go on longer than originally suggested. In July, Edwards and Sommers had said Angola would be used only until facilities at the old Jetson Center for Youth in Baker could be renovated.
On Wednesday, Nelson told the judge youth would stay at Angola at least until the new Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and its transitional treatment unit had been built.
He also suggested that a mental health unit had to be completed before youth would be moved out of Angola, though he didn’t say whether that unit would be located at Swanson or another facility.
“I’m renting while I’m building,” Nelson told the judge. “I wouldn’t be able to give you a specific date,” for when the juvenile justice facility at Angola could be closed.
Before considering a building at Angola, the Office of Juvenile Justice had been trying for over a year to set up a “transitional treatment unit” in other locations with little success.
It opened one up on a satellite campus of the Acadian Center for Youth in an old jail in St. Martinville in 2021, where child welfare advocates complained that incarcerated youth were denied education and kept for long stretches of time in solitary confinement. The agency then moved those youth to a facility in Alabama for a short period, but the arrangement didn’t work out, Nelson told the court.
Nelson was testifying before Judge Dick in a lawsuit from civil rights attorneys who have challenged whether the state can house juvenile offenders on the grounds of an adult prison. Critics believe that the plan may violate federal law, which says incarcerated youth are supposed to be treated differently than adult inmates.
Federal law also requires that incarcerated juveniles and adult prisoners be kept apart, so much so that the two groups cannot see or even hear each others’ activities if they are housed in close quarters.
In court this week, Nelson said he is “very confident” that incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system could be completely isolated from the thousands of adult prisoners on Angola’s campus. The building planned for juveniles is over a mile away from living quarters for adult inmates. The agency also plans to hire a landscaper to take care of the grounds around the building, a job that an adult prisoner would typically perform.
The outdoor recreational space used by the incarcerated youth will also be surrounded with mesh so adult inmates and incarcerated youth can’t see each other through the fencing, Nelson said.
Civil rights attorneys working on the case point out that adult prisoners work jobs in far closer proximity to the site where incarcerated youth would be held. They take care of livestock and pick crops in fields much closer to the building.
‘It’s going to scream “prison” to the young people’
Vincent Schiraldi, a juvenile justice expert the civil rights attorneys hired to testify in court, told the judge he ran into an adult inmate while touring the proposed juvenile justice facility at Angola just last week.
Schiraldi, who oversaw incarcerated youth facilities in Washington, D.C., and managed New York City’s Rikers Island jail, went on to express concern about the facility for incarcerated youth at Angola.
“It’s going to scream ‘prison’ to the young people,” he said in testimony Wednesday.
Incarcerated young people should be kept in housing that looks less like cells and more like dormitories, otherwise they will be at higher risk for self-harm and suicide, Schiraldi said. He also said that recreational facilities at the site are inadequate. There isn’t an indoor gymnasium and the outdoor space doesn’t have a full basketball court or field where young people could realistically play team sports.
The Bridge City complex — which has fields and an indoor gym — is more appropriate for young people and rehabilitation, he said.
Schiraldi also described the kitchen in the Angola facility as “disgusting” and called the visitation area inadequate. During family visits, incarcerated youth wouldn’t be able to touch visitors and would be forced to talk to them through a mesh screen, according to photos Schiraldi showed the court.
“This is terrible. Kids should be able to be in the same room with their parents,” he said.
The prison-like setting appears to be some of the appeal for the Office of Juvenile Justice.
When describing some of the advantages of using the building on Angola’s campus in court, Nelson said the concrete walls and higher fences would be beneficial. Incarcerated youth would be less destructive and have fewer opportunities to escape, he said.
Individual cells would also keep the most troubled youth from terrorizing other incarcerated young people at night because they wouldn’t be sleeping together in a “summer camp” type setting, Nelson said.
“There is no debating that. That is a cell with doors,” Nelson said of the rooms where the incarcerated youth would be staying. “Movement will be very secure in this building.”
The juvenile justice system has struggled with riots and escapes from all three of its larger youth lockups over the past two years. In 2021, incarcerated youth almost killed staff members while trying to get out of facilities in Bunkie and Monroe. Nelson said the violence has continued.
Since he started working at the Office of Juvenile Justice three months ago, there have been two riots at facilities and two or three escapes, he said.
“In the last three weeks, I’ve had three youths who have had their jaws broken,” Nelson told the judge.
Written by Julie O’Donoghue, senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast.