Teenage defendants gather in the juvenile wing at Orleans Parish Prison in 2010. At the time, 23 juveniles were housed there, two per cell. Until a few years ago, young defendants had to be held at OPP if they were charged in adult court. Now it is up to judges to decide where they go. Some local leaders are trying to get young defendants moved to the Youth Study Center, which is designed for juveniles, better staffed and safer. (Photo courtesy Richard Ross, Juvenile in Justice. The organization will exhibit some of its photos at the Joan Mitchell Center in October.) Credit: Richard Ross / Juvnile In Justice

Blood splattered the walls and dripped down the sides of the toilet seat in the narrow jail cell. It pooled into a deep-red puddle on the floor.

The graphic image, leaked by an Orleans Parish Prison whistleblower, showed the aftermath of an attack that sent 16-year-old Brian Ellis to the emergency room with  more than 20 stab wounds. A report from the Sheriff’s Office said another teenager admitted assaulting Ellis in his sleep as retribution from an earlier attack, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reported.

The 2013 incident happened the same day U.S. District Judge Lance Africk approved a sweeping consent decree for Orleans Parish Prison. It was spurred by a lawsuit alleging teenagers there were unsafe and unsupervised, and it called for massive changes throughout the jail to bring it up to constitutional standards. In his order, Africk described a facility “plagued” by “suicides and other in-custody deaths, rapes and other sexual assaults, stabbings, and severe beatings” involving inmates of all ages.

Now, despite reforms and a new jail, juvenile-justice advocates say teenagers’ lives are still endangered.

Over the next month, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights will highlight problems surrounding Orleans Parish Prison, with the goal of getting all defendants under the age of 18 out of that facility and into a safer environment — regardless of charges they face.

That plan faces challenges, however. Funding hasn’t been set aside from the mayor’s capital budget proposal for expansion elsewhere, as advocates had hoped. And the issue of where to put teenagers in custody has been swept up as part of a bitter argument between the sheriff and the mayor over how to spend federal hurricane-recovery money, and whether or not to expand the new jail.

As part of the campaign, the organization on Thursday released “Keep Children Out of Orleans Parish Prison,” a new report about “one of the worst jails in the nation.”

“It’s not safe; it’s not legal; it’s not fair; and the costs of attempting to fix the problems for children in OPP are prohibitively expensive,” the report reads.

The organization also has circulated a petition urging the New Orleans City Council to finance a separate facility, where they say young inmates would be safer.

Ongoing fight

Since December, public officials have been trying to figure out whether all juveniles can be moved from Orleans Parish Prison, and how much it would cost.

Earlier this year, a working group assembled by Mayor Mitch Landrieu met at City Hall to discuss conditions teens face in Orleans Parish Prison. Members of New Orleans City Council heard testimony from judges, youth advocates, the City Attorney’s Office and the council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Despite the jail’s court-ordered reforms, Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who runs the Criminal Justice Committee, found just one guard is on duty for every dozen juveniles. For their protection, teenagers in custody were confined to cells for up to 23 hours a day. Yet still, somehow, they were being harassed and beaten.

17Age at which youths must be tried as adults14Youngest age at which youth can be tried as an adult

Advocates proposed a solution: house the juveniles at the Youth Study Center, the city’s juvenile detention center, where the staff is trained to work with children. The facility also has educational programs and space to handle inmates with special needs, according to Rachel Gassert, a policy director at Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

The City Council agreed, and in June passed an ordinance establishing the Youth Study Center as the “appropriate adult facility” for those kids.

But the ordinance only set aside 12 beds. It isn’t enough for all the juveniles arrested who awaited trial, and it didn’t address those youth who had been arrested for more serious crimes, including murder and rape.

“This ordinance is a compromise,” Meredith Angelson, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, said at the time. “It’s a compromise based on having to deal with the numbers of kids at hand and a limited number of safe beds.”

Money tied up

At a budget hearing last week, Landrieu offered a potential solution: a $7 million expansion of the Youth Study Center that would accommodate 24 juveniles being prosecuted as adults.

The money would come from $54 million in federal funds earmarked for the city’s criminal justice system. It was Federal Emergency Management Agency money set aside to replace Orleans Parish Prison’s Templeman II facility, a massive prison building that stood on Perdido Street before Hurricane Katrina.

”We don’t want the kids to be a pawn in this.”— Rachel Gassert,Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

Landrieu proposes using that FEMA money for several projects, including a $7 million retrofit of the 1,438-bed Phase II tower so it can accommodate the acutely mentally ill. He also wants to demolish dilapidated buildings and other projects across the Orleans Parish Prison campus.

But Landrieu’s proposal came with a catch. In order to access those funds, Sheriff Marlin Gusman would have to agree not to expand the jail.

Gusman wants to use the FEMA money to build a facility called Phase III, which would have cell blocks for mentally ill inmates, a medical clinic and a laundry facility. The new 380-bed building would hold juvenile defendants, too.

Gusman’s office didn’t respond to questions about what kind of living space or educational opportunities youth would get there.

Landrieu’s office also didn’t answer specific questions about the proposed Youth Study Center addition, including what it would look like or whether defendants accused of committing violent crimes would be separated from the rest of the population.

In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Sarah McLaughlin said, generally, Landrieu wants the housing of teen inmates addressed along with other issues.

“We are eager to reach a master settlement with the Sheriff, similar to what was accomplished with the firefighters, so that we can resolve all of these issues related to the jail once and for all,” McLaughlin said. “The goal is to have a right-sized, constitutional jail that makes our city safer without decimating city service.”

However, it’s not clear who’s entitled to the money, according to a recent article on NOLA.com.

The argument between the two politicians has been bitter, and isn’t likely to be resolved soon. In September, Gusman sued Landrieu, requesting a federal judge stop blocking his plans for the new Phase III.

“It’s part of an argument I’m having with the sheriff,” Landrieu said at a press conference announcing his budget proposal. “That part of negotiation is ongoing.”

In the meantime, advocates say that teenagers at OPP shouldn’t have to wait while politics play themselves out. They’re urging City Council to make Youth Study Center funding a priority by pulling it from the mayor’s capital budget, rather than contentious FEMA funds.

“We don’t want the kids to be a pawn in this,” Gassert said.

Gassert said her organization will bring the petition asking for funding to City Hall on Nov. 11, during a city budget hearing. As of Wednesday, it had more than 1,000 signatures.

The report and petition was released Thursday during the opening night of Juvenile in Justice, a national exhibit by photographer Richard Ross. His images expose conditions children face when they’re forced to serve time in adult facilities such as OPP.

“Juvenile In Justice is a call to action, and it’s coming to New Orleans at a critical time,” center  Executive Director Josh Perry said in an email. “We can take common-sense steps right now to help these children.”

What the science shows

In Louisiana, prosecutors have long sought “adult time for adult crimes.” State law mandates that criminal suspects 17 and older be prosecuted in adult court. A district attorney or a judge decides whether to prosecute younger teens in juvenile or adult court.

Kids as young as 14 can be tried as adults for the most violent crimes, such as rape and murder; those as young as 15 can be tried as adults for other serious offenses such as armed robbery.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has recently pushed for more kids to be tried as adults. In 2014, he transferred about 75 percent of eligible cases to adult court.

Since passage of the June City Council ordinance designating the juvenile center as the jail for teens being tried as adults, only juveniles charged with murder, aggravated rape or kidnapping are supposed to be held in OPP while they await trial.

As of Wednesday, six teenagers under 17 were in the adult facility, according to Orleans Parish Prison spokesman Marc Ehrhardt.

According to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights report, the city has to pay extra for specialized space and services to house youth at OPP, regardless of how few kids are in the facility.

The youth are currently in Phase II, which is built in “pods” of 60 beds, the report says.  Because children can’t be jailed alongside adults, 60 beds are required to house those six children. If females are held in OPP along with males, that number climbs to 120. That’s because they  cannot be held together. And for every child that needs to be isolated in protective custody, the number climbs by another 60 beds.

“There is no way that could happen in the current facility without significant and costly retrofitting,” the report reads.

Advocates also say the human brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25, which is why jails like Orleans Parish Prison are detrimental to youth.

A local study found that children housed in Orleans Parish Prison are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those held in a juvenile facility. And according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, juveniles held in adult jails are more likely to be arrested again.

The Richard Ross exhibit provides just a glimpse of what OPP can be like, through the eyes of former defendants.

Images show children wearing bright orange jumpsuits, huddled together in narrow jail cells and community rooms.

And in a letter, Justin Sweeney recalls “House of Death,” the old House of Detention where inmates as young as 17 were sent.

“My skull was fractured as well as my jaw, plus I lost my two front teeth,” Sweeney said, recalling a time he was nearly killed. “If it weren’t for getting a good doctor I would only have half of a bottom lip.”

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...