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)

An official from the United States Department of Justice  wrote a letter to Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Bill Sommers in late July to express opposition to the state’s controversial plan to transfer incarcerated kids to facility housed at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, saying the plan could violate federal law.

In the letter, dated July 25, Elizabeth Ryan, administrator of the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, called the state’s plan — announced on July 19 as a way to alleviate security problems at the Bridge City Center for Youth, an OJJ facility in Jefferson Parish — “problematic.” 

She noted that kids held in adult facilities have greater risk for harm and abuse, and that the kids will be held further away from their families. She also warned that the state would “potentially be in danger of violating federal laws” that mandate “sight and sound separation” between incarcerated children and adults, and that OJJ could potentially face “costly litigation.”

The letter came weeks before the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking to block the transfers. Though the state plans to keep any transferred juvenile detainees in an OJJ-run facility separate from adults at the maximum security prison, the suit charges that the plan could violate legal separation mandates. 

The attorneys representing the proposed plaintiffs’ class, juvenile detainees who could face transfer to Angola or another adult prison campus, have also said the state has not offered adequate details on education and other required services and programming for the juveniles. The lead plaintiff in the suit, a Bridge City detainee whose identity has not been disclosed, said in a sworn statement that he was “terrified” of moving to the Angola campus. 

A preliminary injunction hearing was held before the U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge last week. Dick said during the hearing that she felt the plaintiffs’ case that the proposed transfers violate the juveniles’ civil rights was “thin,” but she has yet to issue a ruling on the injunction. That is expected later this month. And the state has agreed not to implement the plan before Dick issues a decision.

In the letter, which was part of the case record as a plaintiffs’ exhibit but only briefly mentioned during last week’s hearing, Ryan offered some “immediate” assistance to Sommers to “identify and implement more feasible and long-term solutions that will promote public safety and serve the best interests of children and the community.” She wrote that her office could provide technical assistance to evaluate OJJ’s detainee population to identify youth who could be moved to community-based alternatives to incarceration, and coordinate those transfers. Ryan also noted that she had already arranged to meet with Sommers while in town in early August. 

It’s not entirely clear the status of those offers of assistance. Nicolette Gordon, a spokesperson for OJJ, said that the office had received the letter, but could not comment due to the ongoing litigation. 

In a deposition taken earlier this month as part of the lawsuit, OJJ Assistant Secretary Curtis Nelson was questioned about the letter. 

He said that the DOJ had offered to help, but not with the most difficult kids in OJJ custody — only those deemed “low” or “moderate” risk. Nelson said he didn’t think it would necessarily “fix the problem.”

He said conversations between OJJ and Ryan were ongoing.

DOJ did not respond to specific questions about communications between the agencies, but in an email a spokesperson noted that Ryan sent the letter after reading new reports about the planned transfer and that the letter “outlined her grave concerns about placing children in an adult prison” and offered support to “eliminate the need to place children in the penitentiary in Angola.” 

Regardless of what the conversations between OJJ and DOJ may have looked like, the state intends to move forward with the transfer plan, which officials say is a necessary temporary solution to deal with a series of violent incidents and escapes that have occurred at Bridge City and other OJJ facilities.

Several top OJJ officials, including Sommers and Nelson, were in federal court last week to defend the plan. They outlined ongoing efforts to renovate the facility — dubbed Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana — hire staff, and develop programming for the kids in the system with the most serious behavioral issues. 

Despite those efforts, when the first groups of kids will be moved is not yet clear, even if Dick allows the plan to move ahead. Deron Patin, the executive management advisor  at OJJ who is acting as the “point person” on the Angola transfer,  said during the hearing that the facility was “absolutely not” ready to house kids yet. 

In a filing prior to last week’s hearing, plaintiffs’ attorneys outlined the contents of the letter and noted that the state had “not provided any documents that demonstrate whether OJJ took advantage” of the DOJ’s offers to help. 

State officials have been adamant that youth housed at the Angola facility will not come into any contact with adult prisoners, and will receive more robust programming and mental health services than they do currently. But opponents say that transferring kids to an adult facility, and housing them in prison cells, will have long-term mental health effects. They also question whether or not OJJ will actually be able to provide the education and services that they claim will be available. 

Ryan, who was appointed Administrator of  the DOJ’s OJJDP in May of 2022, was previously the president and CEO of Youth First, an organization working to end youth incarceration altogether and instead invest in community-based alternatives.  In early August, she attended a virtual town hall hosted by Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, during which  several Louisiana parents with incarcerated kids expressed their own concerns about the plan. 

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...