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

Civil rights attorneys attempting to block a state plan to transfer incarcerated kids to a facility on the campus of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola began presenting their case in federal court on Tuesday, the first in what is likely to be a multi-day hearing this week in front of Judge Shelly Dick of U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the plan in mid-July following a string of incidents — including fights and several escapes — at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, a secure care facility run by the Office of Juvenile Justice. But youth advocates immediately raised concerns about using a former death-row housing unit near the entrance of the maximum security prison as a solution. 

Despite assurances from state officials, they say it will be difficult to ensure that youth will not come into any contact with adult prisoners, and fear kids won’t receive adequate rehabilitative services. Glenn Holt, a former top OJJ official and now deputy director of Arkansas’ juvenile justice system, told NBC news in July that it was the “worst juvenile justice policy decision probably ever made in modern times.”

The state already agreed, last month, to delay the move until Sept. 15. But if the civil rights attorneys behind the proposed class-action suit get their way, Dick will issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the transfers from taking place while the litigation plays out. 

State officials have been adamant that the kids will not come into any contact with adult prisoners, and will continue to have access to educational and mental health resources. But limited information was available about the state’s plan when the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Alex A. — the pseudonym for a juvenile currently detained at Bridge City. 

It was initially pitched by the Edwards administration as a way to provide some temporary relief at Bridge City while the state works to renovate another facility.  But Documents turned over by the state late last month in response to the lawsuit show that the state plan to turn the Angola facility into a 24-bed maximum security behavioral health program, known as the “Transitional Treatment Unit,” which was previously housed at Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville. 

The documents suggest that anyone could be transferred there — not just kids currently held at Bridge City. 

Alex A., who is 17 years old,  was one of the witnesses who called to testify before the judge on Tuesday, but his testimony was closed to the public to protect his identity. 

In a sworn declaration filed into the record, though, he said that he was “terrified” of being moved to Angola, to the point where the stress was making it impossible to sleep, and he had started pulling out his hair. 

“Yesterday, my dorm leader gave me a blue stress ball to use at night,” he wrote in the declaration, dated Aug. 18. “It helped me not to pull my hair out, but it did not help me go to sleep.” 

‘Anticipatory stress’

Dr. Monica Stevens, a clinical child psychologist who was called to testify as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, said that Angola was not a therapeutic environment and that even the common understanding of Angola as “the worst place you can go to” was sending the wrong message to kids. 

“If the plan is to scare kids straight, that’s not an effective plan,” she said. “And that’s what it looks like to me.”

She described a brief interview that she conducted with Alex where he expressed fears that upon arrival at the Angola facility, he and other youth would be sexually assaulted by adult prisoners. 

Part of the problem, Stevens said, was a lack of transparency from OJJ with kids and families about the plan. (In his declaration, Alex wrote that he learned of the impending transfers from the television news.)

On cross-examination, Lem Montgomery, an attorney representing the governor and the Office of Juvenile Justice, said that Alex “hasn’t bothered to ask” about the details of the plan.  

Dr. Stevens said she considered that line of questioning “victim-blaming.” 

Dick also seemed disturbed by the implication that an incarcerated child should be responsible for gathering information about the government’s intentions. 

“He’s 17 years old, and in the custody of your client,” Dick said. 

But Stevens did acknowledge to defense attorneys that Alex A. apparently testified that his concerns  about the transfer would be alleviated if someone was able to convince him that he would not be housed with any adult prisoners. 

She also called the state’s plan for counseling and educational services “muddy at best,” noting that none of the qualifications for the behavioral health staff were included in the documents she reviewed, and that there is a critical shortage of mental health professionals throughout the state. 

Montogmery pushed back, saying that Stevens didn’t know who would be hired and that “they could be the finest treatment professionals on the face of the planet.” 

“I certainly hope that’s the case,” Stevens replied. 

Denise Dandridge, the director of health services at the Office of Juvenile Justice testified on Tuesday that the Angola facility would be staffed with two counselors who would work Monday through Friday during the days and be on call during the nights and weekends. A psychologist would be contracted for 8 hours a week, but would work remotely via videoconference.

A permanent staff for the facility has not been hired yet, she said, but a start-up team, consisting of higher-level staff from Wellpath — a third-party medical and mental health service that works in jails and prisons, including the New Orleans jail — would be working until new employees were fully trained in. She said that process could take up to six months. 

Dandridge will continue her testimony on Wednesday.

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...