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

In September, over objections from civil rights attorneys, a federal judge ruled that Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice could move forward with a plan to house incarcerated youth at a facility housed on the campus of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — the country’s largest maximum-security adult prison — despite the fact that it was likely to cause “psychological trauma and harm” to the kids held there.

A few weeks later, eight kids were transferred to a renovated former death-row facility on the Angola campus, the exterior fence of which officials have outfitted with thick black fabric to prevent the youth from coming into sight or sound contact with the adult prisoners. 

But despite the ruling and transfers, litigation in the case is ongoing. Having failed to prevent the plan from moving forward, the civil rights attorneys are now fighting to force the state to turn over more information about the conditions and services being provided to the kids held at the facility. They also want access to the facility and the ability to interview those kids and the staff at the facility. 

They have requested information and documents related to staffing, visitation, disability accommodations, suicide prevention, education, and policies and procedures related to use of force. 

“Our goal is to try to find out how exactly the youth are being treated,” said David Utter, an attorney with the Fair Fight Initiative, one of several who brought the case. “The state made a lot of promises, gave the court tons of assurances about what they were going to do, and said that they wouldn’t move youth there unless and until those things were done.” 

Initially, the attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of a single plaintiff, Alex A., the pseudonym of a 17-year-old who was being held at Bridge City Center for Youth. Since then, they have added two more plaintiffs who are currently in OJJ custody — 18-year-old Brian B., and 16-year-old Charles C. — and are asking the judge to recognize the suit as a class-action, where the plaintiff class would consist of “all youth who are now or will be in the custody of OJJ who have been, might be, or will be transferred to the OJJ site at Angola or another adult prison.” They are also asking the court to recognize a subclass that consists of any primary class members who have a disability. 

Ultimately, Utter said, they want Middle District of Louisiana Judge Shelly Dick, who is presiding over the case, to halt any additional transfers to Angola and move the kids currently held there out. 

“Obviously, our position is that no young people should ever be at the Angola facility,” Utter said. 

Lawyers for OJJ, on the other hand, have asked Dick to dismiss the case altogether, arguing that none of the named plaintiffs in the case have been transferred to the Angola facility, and therefore do not have standing to bring a lawsuit. 

And in the meantime, they’re arguing that OJJ shouldn’t have to turn over the information requested by the civil rights attorneys, which they called “voluminous and broad.” Being required to do so, they argue, “would be a substantial waste of resources.” 

Advocates and civil rights attorneys are not the only ones calling for the state to stop housing youth at the Angola facility. Last month, the administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, Liz Ryan, renewed her criticism of housing youth at Angola, saying that they should be moved “immediately.”

‘A prison, for children’

State juvenile justice officials have said that they ultimately plan to house 24 kids at a time at the Angola facility, where they will take part in a multi-week “Transitional Treatment Unit” program meant to provide behavioral interventions for kids who have been described as “violent or very aggressive.”

But on Wednesday, Assistant Deputy Secretary Curtis Nelson, who will soon take over the agency, said that there were still just eight kids there. In an emailed response to questions from The Lens, he cited limited staffing as the reason more kids have not been moved.

“As the agency continues to increase our staffing numbers, we will increase the number of youth housed at the facility,” Nelson said. 

He said that the kids at Angola were currently involved in a wide-range of programming, including  individual counseling, group sessions, family intervention sessions, and family counseling sessions.

Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which serves as the juvenile public defender in New Orleans, said that his organization has two clients currently being held at Angola. 

He said that he has heard from his clients that they are receiving some education and services, but that the environment is much more prison-like than the other secure care facilities, and when kids are not taking part in a structured activity or their one hour of recreation time, they are held in their barred cells.  He said that goes against the stated purpose of the agency. 

“For years, OJJ told us that the secure care facilities were not like prisons, and they were not meant to be like prisons,” Clark-Rizzio said. “That they were meant to be rehabilitative, and they were meant to be different. And now they’ve gone ahead and just created a prison, for children.”

He also said that he thought the scrutiny put on the plan by advocates and attorneys may have forced OJJ to be more diligent about providing services than they may have been otherwise. He noted that when the agency quietly opened the St. Martinville facility in 2021, the kids housed there were initially not provided with any educational opportunites.

He also said that regardless of what specific services the kids are being offered, or the conditions at the facility, the simple fact of it being at Angola sends the wrong message to the youth and their families. 

“It seems like OJJ is missing the point that housing predominately Black children in a maximum security adult prison that was formerly a slave plantation — that’s not something you do,” Clark-Rizzio said. “All of our clients and their families understand the message that OJJ intends to send to them, and they feel it deeply. The children in there feel as if they’re being thrown away, being put in the worst place possible, and being given up on.”

During the hearing in September, OJJ Deputy Secretary Bill Sommers suggested that the agency might set up transportation for families to make it up to Angola for in-person visitation. But so far, Clark-Rizzio said, he was not aware that anything was in place, and he said neither of his clients have received visits thus far. 

While he has not yet been transferred to Angola, in an affidavit Charles C. said that OJJ staff at the St. Martinville facility, where he is currently being held, have started using the possibility of transferring him and other kids to Angola as a threat. 

“Since I have been here, staff have been using the move to Angola against me and the other kids, threatening us that if we do something wrong, we’ll get sent to Angola,” he wrote in an affidavit. “I hear staff say that all the time.”

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...