Young people and juvenile justice advocates rallied in front of state offices in Louisiana’s capital city today, protesting plans to transfer detained youth to the notorious Angola state prison for adults.
Attendees waved signs reading “No kids in Angola!” and “We are youth, not adults.”
Reports of violence, mismanagement and attempted escapes from Louisiana’s juvenile lockups earlier this year prompted Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to propose temporarily moving teens to the Louisiana State Penitentiary for adults. The facility is known as Angola, named for the homeland of the enslaved people once housed there. The maximum-security prison has a brutal history, and is among the most massive institutions of its kind in the nation.
Opponents of the governor’s plan spoke from a podium during the rally in Baton Rouge, including Molly Smith, the mother of one incarcerated teen. She said that she “wakes up terrified” that her son will be transferred to Angola.
“Last month, he turned 17 years old,” she said. “He should be starting his senior year of high school, not locked in a cell in the building that was used and housed adults awaiting execution.”
Smith told the assembled that even at a juvenile detention facility run by the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) — where there is a legal right to rehabilitation services — her son has not had access to things such as basic as medical care and education, and that he has been held for “extended periods” in solitary confinement.
“If OJJ struggles to provide these services inside of the new prison, how can I possibly trust he will receive rehabilitation programs in adult prisons?” she said.
Last week, an agreement between attorneys representing the detained youth and counsel for the governor, the Office of Juvenile Justice, and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections paused the transfer of the youth until Sept. 15.
A pending federal lawsuit between the parties will determine if Gov. Edwards’ plan is legal. Chief Judge Shelly Dick of U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge will hear arguments on Sept. 6 and 7.
The state government seeks to move about 25 youth from the Bridge City Center for Youth outside of New Orleans. In June, some of the youth detained there temporarily seized control over parts of the facility while others attempted to escape.
The unrest prompted attention from Gov. Edwards, who held a press conference on July 19 stating that “it puts the youth, the staff, and the surrounding community at risk, and that’s why we are taking additional action there.” Referring to repeated incidents at Bridge City, he noted: “These incidents simply cannot and will not continue.”
The governor attributed the problems in the facility to poor leadership. He wants current residents sent 150 miles away to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where they would be held in “a separate and isolated location” that has no proximity to detained adults.
But lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and other firms representing the youth and their families oppose the plan.
“There are no circumstances under which it would be safe, legal, or appropriate to house youth at a notorious adult penitentiary like Angola,” Hector Linares of the Loyola Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice stated in an Aug. 19 press release. “Nothing we have seen to this point leads us to believe this is anything but an ill-conceived and impulsive decision that will only heighten the crisis at OJJ, rather than do anything to resolve it.”
David Utter, a lawyer with The Claiborne Firm, added that “the move to put youth in Angola ignores decades of research showing young people in adult lock-ups makes us less safe, not more. The idea that Louisiana is pursuing a policy of placing youth in an adult prison in 2022 truly shocks the conscience.”
The Louisiana State Penitentiary’s history of violence and inhumane conditions has been widely documented and spans decades.
Juvenile justice reform organizations in the state, such as Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, oppose placing minors in the adult prison, describing such a move as defying “all common sense and best practices.”
In a statement released this month, members stated that “the idea of shackling children within the walls of one of America’s most notoriously inhumane prisons is unimaginable.”
At today’s protest, executive director Gina Womack weighed in.
“The solution is stronger and more equitable communities,” she said. “That is why it is beyond frustrating that we are still having to fight for the simplest of rights and dignities for our children — that we live in a world where Black and brown kids could be sent to a former slave plantation, or live in a monument to the institution of slavery and the epitome of ongoing state violence.”