Teenagers from the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center in New Orleans were evacuated to an adult prison, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, for five days after Hurricane Ida. (Photo by Rachel Mipro/Louisiana Illuminator)

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

Thirty-six teenagers housed in the New Orleans juvenile detention center were evacuated to a state adult prison in Iberville Parish ahead of Hurricane Ida, a move that children advocates described as inappropriate and possibly illegal.

The New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center’s director, Kyshun Webster, said Monday that his facility has a longstanding agreement with the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which runs the state’s adult prison system, to help with evacuations. The agreement has been in place since before Webster took over the New Orleans juvenile justice facility three years ago, he said.

The teenagers and 26 staff members from the juvenile center were moved to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel Aug. 27, two days before Hurricane Ida made landfall. They were kept in a building separate from the adult prison population for five days and left the facility Sept. 1, said Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the adult prison system. 

Hunt houses a little over 1,600 adult male prisoners as well as a few hundred adult women prisoners on its campus, according to statistics made public on the prison system’s website. The incarcerated women moved to Hunt after the state’s women’s prison flooded in 2016. Opened in 1979, Hunt is a “multi-level security” institution, meaning the people housed there committed both nonviolent and violent crimes.

“At no time were these populations ever co-mingled, and [the juvenile justice center’s] 26 staff members supervised the 36 [teenagers],” Pastorick said in a written statement Tuesday. 

But advocates questioned why an adult prison was ever considered an adequate evacuation site for minors who are the same age as middle and high school students.

Teens sent to Hunt ranged from 14 to 18 years old, their attorneys said, and haven’t been convicted of a crime. The juvenile justice center is primarily for minors who are awaiting criminal proceedings — not those who have already been found guilty.

“It’s appalling to think that in this day and age — we’ve been working on reform for 20 years — that we would evacuate children to an adult facility. That’s ludicrous,” said Gina Womack, the executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a nonprofit advocacy group. 

Teens transferred to Hunt told their parents and attorneys that the conditions at the prison were scary and upsetting for them.

Jacky Matute said her 14-year-old son described his stay at Hunt as “the worst days of his life,” when he called her at the end of last week. The teen was back in the New Orleans juvenile justice center by the time she talked to him on the phone. She had not been able to reach him for several days and she said he wasn’t allowed to call her while at Hunt.

“He didn’t tell where he had been because he didn’t know where he had been. He just said it was a grown-people jail,” Matute said in an interview Monday. “He said, ‘Mom, they put me in a grown man’s prison.’”

Matute said she feels guilty because while she was evacuated to a hotel and eating decent food, her son was being held in a prison and hungry. The boy told his mother the prison food was so horrible that he refused to eat most of it. 

The juvenile justice center had called Matute ahead of the hurricane to tell her that the child would be evacuated, but they didn’t say where he was going. She never imagined he was going to an adult facility.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry. He will be in a safe place,’” she said. “My son, he’s only 14. He was not enough of an age to be in that place.”

Matute said her son realized he was in an adult prison because during his stay he saw an adult who was incarcerated. 

Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said the boy’s experience is indicative of what other teens have said about the adult prison. Her organization provides attorneys to teens held in the detention center, including several who were sent to Hunt.

Other teenagers told attorneys at Gassert’s nonprofit that the prison food was inedible and the prison building was unbearably hot. In spite of the heat, the teens said they were only allowed to take one shower over several days. The teenagers were also weren’t allowed to call their families during the evacuation and worried about what had happened to their loved ones in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Gassert said. 

Gassert and other children advocates believe the evacuation was illegal. Federal and state laws prohibit children who haven’t been convicted of a crime from being held in adult correctional facilities, they said. “No child subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court shall be held in adult jail or lockup,” reads one Louisiana law that has been on the books since the early 1990s. 

“If they did what everyone is saying that they did, put them in an adult facility, it’s hard to find a more direct violation of [the law],” said Hector Linares, a Loyola University law professor who specializes in juvenile justice. “You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that’s illegal, that’s a violation.”

Linares said the recent evacuation reminded him of the treatment of incarcerated teenagers who were trapped in floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He said he was disappointed that the city didn’t have a better plan in place to evacuate the juvenile detainees 16 years after that devastating storm. 

State officials said that the juvenile center’s evacuation to Hunt was in keeping with regulations for juvenile detention centers. Louisiana’s juvenile detention center rules allow for juvenile lockups to be on the same grounds as an adult facility as long as it is a “separate, self-contained unit,” according to documents provided by the Department of Children and Family Services.

The state prison system also said that it has broad authority to house detainees and other people who aren’t  normally in its custody once a governor declares a state of emergency. Several adult detainees in South Louisiana jails were also evacuated to state prisons ahead of Hurricane Ida, Pastorick said. 

But children advocates said making room for adult evacuees in prisons is not the same as housing children in a prison meant for grown men. The juvenile detention center regulations cited by the Department of Children and Family Services don’t apply to Hunt because it has never been licensed as a juvenile facility, according to Linares. 

“They had time to plan this, and the best they could come up with was a blatantly illegal evacuation plan,” he said.

The City of New Orleans spent several days keeping the teenagers’ evacuation location a secret. 

The state public defender’s office and Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights attorneys were unable to locate their clients for more than a week after the hurricane. The City of New Orleans also refused to answer questions from a reporter about where the detainees in the juvenile center had gone.

Even after the teenagers returned to New Orleans, officials initially said they could not share the evacuation location with the teens’ attorneys or the media over security concerns. They only confirmed the teenagers had been moved to Hunt, after advocates and parents shared stories from the minors who were evacuated. 

“When we are transporting detainees on an open highway, we do not disclose location because it presents a security risk in transit,” said Webster, about why the city has refused to share the location previously.   

In a short interview Monday, Webster tried to distance himself and the city of New Orleans from the decision to send the teenage detainees to an adult prison ahead of the storm. 

Webster said it was the state’s decision — not the city’s — to put the teenagers at Hunt. He said the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections decided where the teenagers would go based on the availability of space and resources. 

“This was coordinated by the state,” Webster said. 

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections runs the adult prisons and other adult programs. A separate state entity, the Office of Juvenile Justice, oversees facilities for incarcerated youth. Had the city intended to transfer its juvenile detainees to a state-run facility for youth, the city would have wanted to partner with the Office of Juvenile Justice and not the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

When pressed for details about the evacuation plan, Webster refused to answer additional questions and hung up the phone.

It’s not clear to what extent state officials outside of the prison system vetted the New Orleans juvenile justice center’s plan. An evacuation plan for the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center was submitted to the Department of Children and Family Services earlier this year, but it didn’t include an evacuation destination. It only referred to an “alternate location” where the detention center would be able to resume operations, according to documents provided by the agency. 

New Orleans was an outlier in how it handled the evacuation of juvenile detainees last month. The five other juvenile detention centers who evacuated for Hurricane Ida moved their detainees to other juvenile facilities, not adult prisons. 

The Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Justice Complex partnered with the Green Oaks Juvenile Detention Center in Monroe. 

The Terrebonne center’s director Joseph Harris Jr. said his facility goes to Monroe whenever there is a disaster in the area, and notifies the courts and law enforcement before any evacuation. He also allows the juvenile detainees to call their parents once relocated. 

“Once we get to our destination, we make sure to call and let them know they are safe and healthy and that they’re at a good place,” Harris said.