The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola / Photo by kccornell via Wikimedia Commons)

An internal Office of Juvenile Justice document that outlines a proposed program for incarcerated youth who are set to be held at a facility housed within the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is raising concerns among advocates with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. They say it suggests that the Angola facility could be used as a kind of systemwide maximum-security unit to which youths housed at any OJJ facility could be sent, not just those now held at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, as statements from Gov. John Bel Edwards have suggested

They also say that even before the move has taken place, the document indicates that OJJ is already preparing for the Angola facility to be understaffed. 

The plan to move kids to a former death-row housing unit at Angola was pitched by Edwards last month as a temporary solution to ongoing issues — including escapes and several violent incidents — at Bridge City. Edwards has said that the youth will be housed more than a mile away from any camp that holds incarcerated adults. 

But the plan has been roundly criticized by civil rights advocates who say that in spite of public assurances from the state, it will be impossible to keep the youth separated from the adult prisoners at Angola, and, due to scant details from the state, they fear that the youths will not receive adequate education or programming at the state prison.

Last week, lawyers representing a current detainee at Bridge City filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in an attempt to stop the transfers. And on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge ordered that the state cannot move any youth to Angola prior to September 15, pending the ongoing litigation. 

She also ordered that by the end of the day on Wednesday, OJJ must “disclose the plan for the proposed transfer and detention of juveniles presently detained” at Bridge City.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, attorney Ronald Haley bemoaned the lack of information that has been made available thus far, saying that the Governor’s office has failed to respond to a public records request for a comprehensive plan .

“What’s the plan? How are you going to ensure that these kids that are transferred to Angola’s needs are going to be met? Educational needs, their sociological needs, their mentorship, their education — everything.” Haley said. “And what we got is crickets. We didn’t get anything at all.”

But an internal “program summary” draft obtained by The Lens provides a tentative look at what OJJ is considering for the Angola facility. 

Angola to house ’Transitional Treatment Unit’ currently at St. Martinville

The program summary suggests that the facility will replace OJJ’s “Transitional Treatment Unit,” which is currently located at the Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville. The document describes the TTU as “maximum custody unit for youth described as violent and very aggressive” that is “designed to assist youth in developing the self-regulatory, coping, and social skills needed to safely and successfully engage peers and staff members.” 

The summary contains tracked changes that show the revisions that were made to the original Acadiana Transitional Treatment Unit program summary. In the title of the document, “St. Martinville” has been crossed out and replaced with “Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana” — the name that OJJ has given to the Angola facility. 

St. Martinville, which was quietly opened last year, has come under fire for holding youth in solitary confinement and failing to provide education. 

But the Transitional Treatment Unit at Angola, according to the document, will rely on a “cognitive-behavioral approach with focus on conflict resolution, anger management, aggression reduction, and social skills” and prioritizes structured activities over “restrictive living.” It requires that kids be given access to education, religious services, and individual counseling at least once per week.

The program summary for St. Martinville also required that kids be given group counseling five times per week, when staffing is optimal. That requirement, however, has been removed from the Angola program summary.

Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights called the summary a “set of aspirational ideas that still lacks a concrete plan,” and said it was “woefully inadequate.” 

“They’re just trying to use this document that they had for one facility and graft it on to another,” Clark-Rizzio said. “But it all feels like it’s being done on the fly.” 

Nicolette Gordon, a spokesperson for OJJ, said in response to questions from The Lens that the program summary is an “internal working document” and that  “nothing has been finalized.” 

Document suggests any OJJ detainee could be eligible for transfer

The program summary also raises questions about who will be eligible for transfer to the Angola facility. 

Initially, Edwards said that the plan was a “temporary solution” to house around 25 youth currently being held at Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. But the revised program summary for the Angola facility does not require that the youth who are transferred come from Bridge City. It appears to suggest that a referral can be made from any of the five OJJ facilities.

The document maintains the admission criteria that was used for the Transitional Treatment Unit at St. Martinville, which requires that a youth has demonstrated some behavioral problems — such as possessing a weapon, being involved in an escape, or having “exhibited a pattern of battery on other youth.”  A kid can then be referred for admission to the TTU by a facility director or other staff member, which must be approved by a “multidisciplinary team” prior to a transfer being initiated.

“That was how this was first presented,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio of the stated plan to house only Bridge City detainees at Angola. “This programming summary suggests something very different. It would suggest not all the kids from Bridge City would go over there. But it also suggests that this is indeed not a temporary thing, but perhaps a more long term facility that they’re trying to create.” 

The program summary also maintains language from the St. Martinville TTU that calls it a “short-term program.”

“Under optimal conditions, the program duration is four weeks; yet depending upon stabilization, youth may transition from the program in less than four weeks or may remain on the unit longer than four weeks,” the document says. 

Despite that, there is also a newly added section, apparently written for the Angola facility, that requires that youths be placed in the program for a minimum of 4 weeks. 

Gordon, with OJJ, did not respond to specific questions regarding who will be transferred to Angola or why the four-week minimum was added. 

“The issues being addressed are serious and complex and officials are working diligently to develop a plan that will meet the needs of the youth, support them in their rehabilitation and ensure their safety as well as that of the staff and community,” she wrote. “This is a work in progress and more details will be released as they are completed.”

Clark-Rizzio said that if indeed the facility will be used to house TTU youth from any of the OJJ facilities, it calls the original justification for the plan into question. 

“If the original purpose of this has changed, then that undercuts the idea that there’s a true necessity for this,” he said.

Staffing questions

The updated document has also removed a minimum staffing pattern that required the St. Martinsville program to have a minimum of four staff working at any given time, at least one social service staff member for every six kids, and three teachers. 

The newly marked-up document requires a “social service staff” and regular and special education teachers, but does not specify how many are required. It also removes the position of “residential therapist.” 

“They’ve removed the staffing requirements from the actual plan, which suggests that they don’t want to be held to the staffing ratios, or that they intend to go below those ratios,” Clark-Rizzio said. “Or they intend to just figure it out later.”

The state’s civil service department has been holding career fairs this month in St. Francisville for the specific purpose of staffing up the youth facility at Angola. Currently, on the OJJ website, there are nine open positions at Bridge City, for which new hires may be “assigned to work at satellite locations located in West Feliciana or Jefferson Parish.” The openings include a youth facility deputy director, two food services positions, and several “juvenile justice specialists.” 

Clark-Rizzio said that he worries the abuse and neglect that was reported at the St. Martinville facility could be repeated.

“The last time they opened a new facility for children that were struggling to meet their needs, they actually just put those children into solitary confinement,” Clark-Rizzio said. “That’s their track record.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...