Nearly a year after being incarcerated in the country’s largest maximum-security adult prison—including being held in solitary confinement and placed in death row cells, youth detainees will finally be transferred from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a former plantation for enslaved African Americans commonly known as “Angola”.
The children will be released by Sept. 15, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a press release issued on the ACLU’s website Friday, Chief Judge Shelly Dick pulled a 180 from a previous decision and found that officials at Angola punished youth detainees with multi-day solitary confinement, handcuffs, pepper spray, and a denial of family visits. The maximum-security facility also had an insufficient number of social workers and counselors, educational resources, and mental health treatment.
“For almost 10 months, children—nearly all Black boys—have been held in abusive conditions of confinement at the former death row of Angola—the nation’s largest adult maximum security prison,” lead counsel David Utter said, according to the ACLU. “We are grateful to our clients and their families for their bravery in speaking out and standing up against this cruelty.”
Louisiana activist organization Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) praised the motion to remove the children from Angola, but wasn’t shortsighted on the future of incarcerated youth.
“We are relieved the judge decided to release children from Angola. This decision is long overdue and it’s shameful that it has taken a lawsuit and federal intervention,” Youth Organizing Manager Antonio Travis said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
However, advocates for the youth who have been detained at Angola remain critical of the system that appears to be a revolving door.
“They’re going to go back to the same thing, just a different location,” FFLIC Co-Founder and Executive Director Gina Womack told The Daily Beast. “With even more damage.”
“There is no win here, as youth in prisons all across the state still remain in facilities that clearly cannot give them the support they desperately need,” Travis said. “Our ineffective over-reliance on youth prisons has proven time and again that punitive measures don’t work and don’t foster rehabilitation.”
FFLIC youth leader Rio Valdez accused the Louisiana justice system of not trying to help young Black and brown people.
“The justice system, their mentality is more or less, ‘OK, well, young people are just going to kill each other off,’ and the rest they’re just going to scoop up, throw away,” he said. “They’re not worried about saving or giving people a chance. It’s more so just about getting rid of as many as they can.”
“Today’s ruling is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t actually progress,” the statement from Utter read. “It’s simply regaining what we lost last year when the Governor decided to send kids to Angola. There is much more work to be done in order to truly reform this broken system.”
In July, attorneys for youth detainees between the ages of 14 to 18 filed a motion against Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the acting deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, and the acting secretary of the state Department of Corrections to immediately transfer the kids who had been temporarily placed in Angola back to juvenile centers.
Within those youth facilities, the detainees were supposed to receive state-mandated resources for education, mental health, and rehabilitation, according to the filing, but they were moved to former death row cells at Angola because of alleged limited space and staffing.
The U.S. Department of Justice followed up later that month with a letter of interest.
In August 2022, an emergency complaint was filed to prevent the transfer from happening, claiming Angola was insufficient to house the juveniles due to poor conditions and because adult offenders would be in the area.
“[Angola] cannot provide basic, humane care for the adults within its gates,” the complaint read, citing a previous case in which Dick found the prison to be limiting.
“‘[The Louisiana State Penitentiary] lacks the infrastructure necessary to provide a constitutionally adequate health care system for patients with serious medical needs,’ and ‘overwhelming deficiencies in the medical leadership and administration of health care at [the prison] contributes to these constitutional violations,’” the complaint quoted the judge. “If LSP cannot protect the constitutional rights of the almost five thousand adults in its custody and care, it will not be to provide care to… youth placed there.”
However, after a series of hearings, the federal court denied the motion in September 2022, saying the positives of the youth being transferred outweighed the “disturbing” negatives.
“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,” the order from Dick read.
The court added that the Office of Juvenile Justice, a government organization that oversees youth detained in Louisiana, would provide necessary care for incarcerated children, even though they would be detained at an adult prison.
“The Court is mindful that the specter of the prison surroundings alone will likely cause psychological trauma and harm,” the order continued. “However, the public interest and the balance of harms require that OJJ be afforded the latitude to carry out its rehabilitative mission for the benefit of all youth in its care.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for the youth transferred to the former plantation, which was named for the country where the enslaved Africans who were forced to work there originated. After slavery was abolished, owners utilized the state’s leasing convict system to exploit the labor of Black inmates. By the 1880s, the land was converted into a full-blown prison, and it became Louisiana state property in 1900.
According to the complaint filed on behalf of the youth detainees, the juveniles, already traumatized during incarceration, endured harsher conditions at Angola than they would have at juvenile facilities.
“[One child reported that Angola was unlike other juvenile facilities, because he spent most of his time alone, and was sometimes left alone in his cell for multiple days,” read the complaint, adding that other youth were only allowed out of their cells for eight minutes a day to shower while handcuffed and shackled.
“The lack of windows in the cells, the lack of privacy, lack of normalcy, inadequate recreation space, the metal prison beds and sinks and many other physical features send the clear message to Plaintiffs that they are in an adult prison, and that they are being punished,” reads the complaint. “Unlike their peers in juvenile facilities with individual rooms or dormitories, rather than barred cells, youth transferred to the [Office of Juvenile Justice] site at Angola face a greater risk of suicide by the very architecture of the facility.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast after Friday’s ruling, Utter said that a guard pulled a juvenile’s hands through a cell’s bars and left him lying on the floor after being maced. He also explained that kids had been forced to exercise and clean while handcuffed.
“This is a case about promises made and promises broken,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Reform Act 1225 in 2003 mandated that juvenile detention centers “uniformly” rehabilitate incarcerated youth with community involvement and engaged programming “that will ensure a safe, secure, and humane environment for children within the facilities.”
Since 2022, between 70-80 had been transferred to Angola, the 2023 complaint noted, adding that the majority of the youth have been Black and may have been transferred more than once to the former slave plantation that now houses more than 5,000 inmates.
“[These kids] know where they are,” Utter told The Daily Beast. “If these were rich white kids and these are middle-class white kids, there would be citizens screaming to the rooftops to stop it.”
“You don’t want to feel like we’re in the 21st century and we have the same mentality that Black and brown children are not real people,” Womack said.
“The state should understand what they’ve done, and, immediately, every child that was in that facility, immediately they should identify those kids and get special counseling and services wrapped around them. That’s what should happen,” Utter said.
“Do I think that’s going to happen? No. This is Louisiana.”