Youths housed in the former death row unit at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola have had no air conditioning in their windowless, concrete cells as the heat index has risen above 130 degrees at times, according to an emergency court filing on behalf of juveniles held there.
“I would not dare to keep my dog in these conditions for fear of my dog dying,” Dr. Susi Vassallo, a physician with expertise in how heat affects incarcerated people, wrote in a legal statement in support of moving the incarcerated youth. “Louisiana’s cruelty to animals laws would not support keeping a dog confined in this heat in a cage. And Louisiana law requires air conditioning in all juvenile detention centers.”
Vassallo said the youth housed at Angola “are at substantial risk of serious physical and psychological harm due to their extensive and continued exposure to high temperatures and heat index during the summer months in Louisiana.”
The unmitigated extreme heat is not the only concern rising from Angola, the nation’s largest adult maximum security prison.
Children say they’ve been put in solitary confinement for up to three days upon arrival, let out for only minutes to shower in shackles and handcuffs. They also say they don’t have drinkable water in their cells and that the food is so bad it makes them sick.
“I have seen other kids locked in their cells for several days and even up to weeks for minor infractions and incidents with the guards,” a 17-year-old identified as Charles C. said in the court documents. “The guards don’t care about us here.”
Charles said he was thrown against a wall by a staff member, injuring his back and causing him to bleed. The next day, he said, he got hit by pepper spray guards sprayed at another handcuffed and shackled youth. It got into his open wound and “really burned and hurt.”
The United Nations has condemned the use of solitary confinement for children, citing the risk of psychological damage. Tammie Gregg, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement “even short periods of solitary can do irreparable harm.”
“Children in the juvenile system are legally required to receive rehabilitation, education and treatment,” Gregg said. “But in Angola, for almost a year, the state has subjected children to punishment and abuse, depriving them of their rights and further harming already traumatized young people.”
Civil rights attorneys fought to prevent children from being housed in the prison, but a federal judge sided with the state in a September 2022 ruling that came with some asteriks.
The ruling said “no youth will be transferred to [Louisiana State Penitentiary] until the facility is ready, properly staffed, and can fully provide educational, medical, mental health, recreational, and food services.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) said it would provide children with these services and that Angola would act as a temporary placement for children while a new facility was being built with a scheduled completion date of April 2023.
The new emergency filing alleges, however, the state has not kept the promises it made to the court regarding the conditions in which young people would be kept or the temporary nature of the placement.
The OJJ has incarcerated a total of 70 to 80 boys at Angola since late October 2022, court filings say. Court filings lay out a number of concerns with how these minors, as young as 15, are being held: “routine use of solitary confinement, excessive heat and inadequate access to potable water on the cellblocks, almost no teaching staff and no instruction, a lack of family contact visits, and inadequate counseling, treatment and recreation.”
Lawyers allege these conditions violate the constitutional and legal rights of the teens, who they note are almost all Black.
State officials said youths would only be in the concrete, windowless cells to sleep and that children would not be subject to solitary confinement or kept in their cells as punishment. “The reality for the youth placed at Angola is now far different,” the emergency court filings said.
“Children report the routine use of solitary confinement, for days at a time, for disciplinary and other purposes,” the court filings say.
From July 5 until at least July 11, youth said they were locked in their cells and let out once for two hours outside and the rest of the days for only eight-minute showers, during which they remained handcuffed and shackled, according to the court filing. The heat index was in the triple digits through this time period.
The filings allege children have “almost no indoor activity” and are “routinely confined to the cells for days on end.” They’ve only been recently allowed outside near a basketball hoop — but in handcuffs and leg shackles and without a ball, the filings say.
The juveniles have “little to no counseling” and irregular access to phone calls with family, the filings said. The education, too, doesn’t match up with what the state promised, according to the allegations.
“There is one teacher for one housing area and no teachers at all for the other units, with youth receiving no instruction, no special education services, and only ‘computer learning’ without assistance,” the filings read.
The conditions have left the teens frustrated and isolated, two said in the legal filings.
A 16-year-old, identified as Daniel D., has been at Angola three times. He said he sits alone in his cell everyday from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. He has eaten only three trays of food from the prison since he arrived back in June because it is “horrible,” leaving him to buy from the commissary instead. “The water in my cell is not drinkable,” he said.
Unlike other facilities he’s been in, Daniel said Angola’s juvenile section has no library and no substance abuse treatment. He used to be able to call his family “throughout the day, every day.” But at Angola, he’s only been able to call them once, and he’s too far for them to visit.
Charles, the 17-year-old, said he can’t speak to his family or meet with a counselor like he could at other facilities. The incarcerated teens are only let out an hour or so a day into the yard, which is “covered in barbed wire and a black tarp.”
“My cell is incredibly small and I have no room to move,” Charles said. “I can’t drink the water out of the faucet because it has a color, tastes bad, and would make me sick. I worry about my mental health because I’m forced to be in these cells.”
“The guards here don’t care about me or the kids here,” he added. “They want me to act out but I won’t.”
“I want to get out of here,” Charles said.
OJJ Deputy Secretary said recently the state plans to relocate teens held at Angola to a youth facility in Monroe by mid-November.