Demonstrators gathered outside City Hall in June to protest harsher juvenile justice policies announced by the city. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

On Wednesday evening, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice turned over documents related to the state’s plan to move some incarcerated youth to a facility housed within the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to civil rights attorneys who have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of the kids who could potentially be transferred there. 

The facility — which has been dubbed the Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana — will house a maximum-security “Transitional Treatment Unit,” a “specialty program” for youth with behavioral issues, according to one of the documents that was turned over Wednesday, which contains a policy that became active earlier this week on August 23. 

The TTU, which was previously housed at the Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinsville,  is designed as a 4-week program that aims to provide counseling and behavioral techniques “for breaking the maladaptive behavior chain.” The program can last longer than 4-weeks, however, if there are “continued behavioral problems.” It can accommodate up to 24 kids. 

That is consistent with an internal “program summary” document for the TTU at Angola obtained by The Lens earlier this week. OJJ called that document a “work in progress” and said that nothing had been finalized. 

Much of the information contained in the program summary has in fact been finalized in the policy. 

Advocates and attorneys say it shows a plan that is markedly different from what was initially proposed by Gov. Jon Bel Edwards when he announced the pending transfer last month. 

Edwards initially said the Angola facility would be used to house around half of the kids who are currently incarcerated at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. Several local leaders called for that facility to be shut down after a series of escapes and violent incidents. 

But the policy that was turned over on Wednesday indicates that any kid from an OJJ secure care facility can be referred to the TTU program at Angola — not just kids from Bridge City. 

“Nothing that I read in that policy indicates that this would be limited to youth from Bridge City,” said Hector Linares with the Loyola Law Clinic, who was one of the attorneys who brought the lawsuit against the governor and OJJ to block the transfers. “And so I’m concerned about that. That it’s expanding beyond what was initially stated in the governor’s press conference.” 

Another document provided by OJJ says that “certain youth” who are “primarily confined in the current Bridge City (BCCY) facility, have destroyed the physical facilities to the point that they have to be renovated and repaired,” and that the Angola facility “has the proper physical facilities needed to house the youth who exhibit these behavioral traits.”

But it does not say that only the youth from Bridge City in Jefferson Parish will be moved there.

“It seems clear that the purpose of this new facility is entirely different from what the governor initially said the purpose was,”said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “They said this was just about getting them out of a physical building that they asserted there were some problems with. It is clear that that is not the problem they’re trying to solve.” 

Linares worries that the facility may not be as temporary as it was first pitched if it becomes a place where kids throughout Louisiana’s youth detention system are being sent to get specific treatment.

The document also says that  OJJ has “prepared / contracted” special education services, medical services, and visitations “via Zoom.” It is unclear whether or not that means those services will be limited to virtual interactions, or if in person services and visitation will also be an option. 

Linares called it “deeply concerning.”

“Especially during the pandemic, we learned that remote instruction is extremely difficult to do for students with disabilities,” Linares siad. “And for some, I would say it’s impossible. Any plan that relies heavily or exclusively on remote instruction, I believe would not be appropriate for youth that have high levels of need are often years behind their chronological grade level.” 

A spokesperson for the Office of Juvenile Justice did not respond to questions from The Lens. 

The proposed facility is located just inside the main gates of the prison. There are federal laws that prevent incarcerated youth from having any sight or sound contact with adult prisoners, and  officials have stressed that the youth housing unit at Angola  is over 1.5 miles from any adult housing unit. 

An OJJ document turned over yesterday states that the fence around the facility “will be wrapped in solid fabric so no one can see in or out.”

“Once again, this feels like an effort to simply put kids somewhere that’s convenient for the adults in the system,” Clark-Rizzio said. “It reminds me of efforts to move kids to Alabama. It  reminds me of St. Martinsville. It is trying the same strategy that has failed and failed.”

Middle District of Louisiana judge Shelly Dick has ordered that no kids can be transferred to the Angola facility prior to Sept. 15, pending the litigation. A hearing on a preliminary injunction to prevent the transfers is set for Sept. 6.

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...