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

At a court hearing on Tuesday, Patrick Cooper, who was recently hired as a teacher at the Angola youth-detention facility, testified that, at first, he wasn’t given a roster of students. He didn’t even know what grades or courses the kids were supposed to be in. 

He also had no access to individualized educational plans for special-education students, despite legal requirements well-known to Cooper, a past director of special education for the state of Louisiana. 

Extremely concerned, Cooper reached out directly to the Office of Juvenile Justice, which operates the controversial youth facility set on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Only then did the situation start to improve.

“Personally, I would have done things differently,” said Cooper, one of the facility’s employees who faced questioning from civil rights lawyers over the facility’s inadequate schooling and habitual use of “cell restriction,” which the attorneys have argued amounts to solitary confinement. 

The hearing, which is expected to continue most of this week, is part of an ongoing federal lawsuit that was filed last year, even before the OJJ moved any juvenile offenders to the former death-row building at Angola. Last fall, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick heard arguments on the case, but still allowed OJJ to open the facility. 

Now, nearly a year later, the lawyers are back before Judge Dick, asking her to move their young clients, some as young as 15, to “lawful youth facilities” where they would no longer be subject to the mistreatment and shoddy schooling they’ve endured at the OJJ facility at Angola.

Testimony from several employees at the Angola facility, including the director, on Tuesday  made clear that the youth, who are assigned to one-person cells, spend a lot of time alone in their cells.

On school days, children held at Angola spend half of class time inside their cells because at least one classroom is damaged, which leaves the facility with only one usable classroom, Cooper and others testified.

All the children are kept within their cells during “sleep hours,” from 5:30 p.m. to around 7:30 a.m., and generally eat breakfast and dinner in their cells.

Kids who violate rules are also frequently disciplined with “cell restriction” that can last for days at a time, a security supervisor at the facility confirmed. But he wouldn’t consider it “solitary confinement,” he said, because staff frequently checked on cell-restricted kids, who were also released for programming including recreation and for mental and medical health calls.

But being held in cells for 23 hours a day is mistreatment, said civil-right attorneys, noting that even kids first entering the facility are kept on cell restriction for 48 hours straight, for a so-called “adjustment period.” Several kids also attested, in sworn statements, that they were held in their cells for days at a time, only released to take eight-minute showers – while handcuffed and shackled. 

All of this came as no surprise to civil-rights attorneys.

“Predictions … of an appropriate, harmful, unhealthy, traumatic and service-starved environment have sadly proved true,” the attorneys wrote in the brief filed last month, which alleges that the facility’s conditions are unconstitutional. “End this harmful and failed experiment.”

Problems at Bridge City led to move to Angola
Last summer, the Bridge City Center for Youth in Avondale suffered a rash of serious problems, including repeated escapes and violence against staff and other kids.

Soon afterward, in July 2022, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced plans to open the Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana, housed at Angola, in the former death-row building – where they are kept out of sight and out of contact from the penitentiary’s adult prisoners.

Lawyers for the children almost immediately filed suit. But Judge Dick overruled their objections to the new facility in September of last year.

Yet, in last year’s decision, she expressed some reluctance. “The prospect of putting a teenager to bed at night in a locked cell behind razor wire surrounded by swamps at Angola is disturbing,” Dick wrote

That reluctance was offset by what she called the “serious events” of July 2022 at the Bridge City site, the judge wrote then. “While locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable. … The untenable must yield to the intolerable.”

At the time, OJJ officials had described the move onto the grounds of the supermax prison was only a temporary fix, during a renovation at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe. The state needed a secure location – namely, the facility at Angola – to temporarily house youth in custody until April 2023, when repairs were slated to be complete. 

Because that renovation’s endpoint is now four months overdue, the teens have spent the summer in uncomfortable, if not inhumane, conditions, their lawyers argue. According to new construction projections, kids won’t be moved until the summer heat is over — likely the late fall, according to officials.

During the recent heat wave, the teens at Angola have alleged that they are being held in a building with no air conditioning and scarce drinking water, where the heat index – air temperature and humidity – soared to 132 degrees and some children resorted to sleeping in the coolest part of their cells: the concrete floors.

On Tuesday, employees testified that the tiers do have air conditioning, along with fans. But they acknowledged that the AC unit needed recent repairs and that there have been regular power outages— including one in late June that lasted more than two days. 

Isolated in ‘windowless, concrete block, barred’ cells
Testimony on Tuesday illustrated that teens kept at Angola were often kept on “cell restriction” for breaking rules, though state law prohibits juveniles from being punished with solitary confinement — which it defines as “the involuntary placement of a juvenile alone in a cell, room, or other area, except during regularly scheduled sleeping hours.” 

Youth are more vulnerable to the harms of such isolation, which has been shown to lead to suicide, depression, and anxiety.

Disobedient teens can be sent to their cells for periods ranging from 24 to 72 hours for a list of behaviors, including violating three verbal directives, scratching or writing graffiti, throwing food from cells or being caught in an unauthorized area, according to a facility document entitled “Cell Restrictions.”

The question before the court is whether those restrictions were considered “punishment.” 

One security officer at the facility, Henry Patterson IV, saw it differently. “We are teaching these youth to be held accountable for their inadequate behavior,” he testified.

Linda London, the facility’s director, agreed with that assessment. The amounts of time outlined in the cell-restriction document were “discretionary,” she testified. And often, kids charged with the alleged infractions were not issued cell restrictions at all, or were kept in their cells for shorter periods than recommended by the document.

In response, OJJ’s lawyers described violent incidents, including assaults on staff and damage to several parts of the building, including one entire tiers of cells and the unusable classroom. The cell-restriction policy, they argued, was necessary for maintaining safety at the facility, where juveniles are sent if they act out at other OJJ facilities. 

Similarly, London said, each new child’s initial period of cell restriction was a necessity, to build rapport with staff and to be sure that he has no known enemies within the facility. 

Still, the policy seemed to raise concern for the judge, who had visited the facility in July. She’d observed that several youth were on cell restriction and many others who were handcuffed during recreation time and in the dining hall. 

“Why would that be the case?” she asked London.

Staff were concerned that they were going to be attacked, because they had been “given intel” on the matter, London said. 

Subpar schooling
Tiers alternated using the facility’s single classroom, Cooper testified, with one holding class there in the morning and one in the afternoon. Children on the tier not in the classroom worked alone inside their cells on OJJ-printed “workbooks.” They could not use computers, which are not allowed into cells, he said.

The lack of a classroom for half the school day made instruction very challenging, Cooper said.

“It’s so difficult to teach down in the cell block,” he said. 

Cooper is one of two teachers at the facility. Two special education teachers also visit the facility twice a week — one for 45 minutes at a time, and the other for 30 minutes. 

That wasn’t enough to truly educate the students, Cooper said. “We can meet the needs to a point,” he said, “but it’s not ideal.”

The realities of the school day fell far short of the promises of high-quality schooling made to Dick last year, the plaintiff’s lawyers contend. “School at Angola is, at worst, non-existent, and, at best, woefully unequipped to meet the educational needs of children, especially children with disabilities,” they wrote in their brief.

In summary, lawyers for the youth emphasized in last month’s brief that Dick’s ruling in favor of the state last year came on the heels of repeated sworn commitments from state officials, who promised therapeutic conditions including recreation, education, mental-health help. 

“The reality for the youth placed at Angola is now far different,” lawyers wrote. 

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...