A cell inside the proposed youth unit at Angola. (Plaintiffs' exhibit in Alex A v. Edwards)

A federal judge said on Thursday that civil rights attorneys suing the state presented “thin” evidence that moving juveniles — currently housed in state juvenile facilities — to an Office of Juvenile Justice-run facility on the campus of the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola would violate their rights.

But at the same time, Judge Shelly Dick of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge declined a motion from the state to toss the plaintiffs’ request to block the proposed transfer on Thursday. Nor did she rule from the bench on the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction against the state, instead opting to issue a written ruling by Sept. 23. 

Officials with the state Office of Juvenile Justice who testified during the hearing said that there was still significant work to do in order to get the facility on the Angola campus ready to house kids — including hiring more staff, pouring concrete for a basketball court,  installing internet connection, and removing any signage with references to “death row”  —  and agreed not to transfer any there prior to Dick’s ruling.

Previously they had agreed that none would be moved until Sept. 15.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the decision to move some kids to a facility on the Angola campus in July following several violent incidents at Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish — including an escape that ended with one of the kids allegedly shooting a man in Uptown New Orleans. Following the incident, Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng called for Bridge City to be shut down. The proposed youth facility would be on a separate part of the campus from the maximum-security adult housing, and officials say the juveniles will have no contact with adult prisoners. 

During the hearing this week, plaintiffs’ attorneys — who represent a 17-year-old Bridge City detainee identified as Alex A. and are seeking class-action status for the suit — attempted to portray the plan as politically motivated, and suggested that kids would be sent to Angola as punishment, rather than for rehabilitation. 

They seized on deposition testimony from recently-appointed Assistant OJJ Secretary Curtis Nelson, taken days before the hearing, in which he said politics had come into play following the July shooting, and that it was “unrealistic” to believe that some kids in OJJ custody could be rehabilitated, given the amount of trauma and abuse they had experienced in their lives. (Nelson, a former juvenile prosecutor, gave similar testimony before the state legislature in August, suggesting that district attorneys across the state should consider charging more youth as adults.)

On Wednesday, Nelson testified in court that he was only referring to a very small percentage of kids, and that OJJ still made every effort to rehabilitate all kids in their custody. Those moved to Angola would be no different, Nelson said. He denied that the decision was politically motivated.

‘Our best option’

The attorneys for Alex A. also said that youths were experiencing anticipatory fear and adverse mental health effects just from knowing they could be sent to a notorious adult prison, and that the facility itself would not be conducive to providing sufficient educational, therapeutic, and recreational services for kids. 

But Office of Juvenile Justice leaders argued that opening the Angola facility — which they have dubbed the “Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana” — was necessary to hold kids who are regularly destroying property, and assaulting other detainees and staff at the current facilities. 

At the Angola facility, the kids will have individual prison cells where they will sleep, as opposed to the dormitories that are at the other facilities, and the infrastructure will be less susceptible to damage.

“The facility in West Feliciana is our best option,” Deputy Director of OJJ, William Sommers testified on Thursday. 

The recreation yard at the proposed youth facility at Angola. Office of Juvenile Justice has said they are going to pour a cement foundation for a basketball court. (Plaintiffs’ exhibit in Alex A v. Edwards)

OJJ plans to use the facility to house their “Transitional Treatment Unit,” a program  for the youth with the most serious behavioral issues. While the program is supposed to only last four weeks, kids who are failing to respond to the targeted behavioral interventions could stay on longer. 

Initially, Gov. Edwards suggested that all the kids at Bridge City who were not in special sex offender program would be transferred to the Angola facility. But documents outlining the TTU program instead suggested that anyone throughout OJJ who met certain criteria could be transferred.

On Thursday, an official with OJJ confirmed that all the kids from Bridge City who are not in a special sex-offender program would still be transferred out of the facility — though not all of them to Angola. 

Officials said that once the facility is ready, kids would be transferred in staggered groups of eight, for a total of 24 youths at a time. 

Sommers also said that there would be in-person visitation at the facility, and even said that internal discussions were taking place regarding the possibility of providing transportation to families for visitation — though conceded that nothing had been put into writing yet.

“A momma needs to hug her son,” Sommers said. 

‘This is who you are. This is who you will become’

But the Angola facility is being opened in the wake of disturbing reports of another OJJ facility that was quietly opened last year in St. Martinville, where kids were held for months without receiving any education, and sometimes were held in solitary confinement around the clock. 

Deputy Director Sommers acknowledged on Thursday that education was not being provided at St. Martinsville for several months. But he said that Angola would be different, and that OJJ has had more time to plan for the Angola facility than they did at St. Martinsville.

Despite signaling her skepticism of the request to block the transfers, Dick also questioned what the potential message would be to youth sent to the facility, given the fact that they “are still forming their notions of who they are going to be.”

“My question is, if you take a youth to the physical site [at Angola] … is it irreparable harm to bring youth to this site and say: ‘This is who you are. This is who you will become’?” she asked Lem Montgomery, an attorney representing Edwards and OJJ.

But Montgomery said that the kids who would be transferred to the Angola facility required a more secure environment, and that the stress they may feel in anticipation of being held at Angola did not rise to the level of “irreparable harm” — the legal standard for granting a preliminary injunction. 

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...