Since they arrived at Jackson Parish jail last month, children transferred out of a unit at Louisiana’s Angola state prison have been repeatedly maced, according to one boy’s statement to his attorney. The boy also said that jail officials failed to keep them separated from adult detainees, in possible violation of federal regulations designed to protect incarcerated youth.
“This jail is for adults,” he told his attorney. “It is no place for any young person.”
His was one of two statements submitted by civil rights groups to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana and to the U.S. Department of Education. The boys were transferred to the Jackson Parish Correctional Center on September 15, when a federal judge ordered the state to move them out of a controversial unit on the old death row of Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola.
Both boys reported that when they first arrived, adult detainees spoke to them when they passed by their cells. Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown told The Daily Beast last month that kids and adults would have no contact at the jail.
But one of the boys reported that during the five days he was locked up at the jail, he “saw adults every day.”
“[They] opened up the flap to our cells to talk to us,” he said.
In an email to The Appeal after publication, a spokesperson for Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice said the agency “refutes the allegations concerning the treatment of the youth” at Jackson Parish.
“Great care was taken to make certain the youth were placed in a safe environment and would continue to receive the educational services and care that follow state and federal laws and regulations,” the spokesperson said.
The reports of poor conditions at the jail are just the latest indication that the OJJ is failing to fulfill its mission to support—not punish—kids in their care, say advocates who have been engaged in a more than year-long fight over the state’s plan to send “problematic youth” to Angola. The governor announced the plan last year after several kids ran away from an OJJ facility, claiming that some children needed a higher level of security than existing facilities could provide.
Last year, the ACLU and other legal groups sued to stop the transfers to Angola, the site of a former slave plantation. But U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ruled OJJ could proceed after the agency assured her they would provide all children with educational and rehabilitative services.
Over the next 10 months, OJJ sent between 70 and 80 kids, most of whom were Black, to Angola.
Last month, Dick reversed course and ordered OJJ to remove all children from the unit.
“Virtually every promise made was broken, causing severe and irreparable harm to the wards that the Office of Juvenile Justice is obliged to help,” she wrote in her ruling.
OJJ has appealed Dick’s order, and the case is now pending before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
When OJJ transferred the kids to the Jackson Parish jail, the agency announced in a press release they would be housed in a “new juvenile justice facility.” But the jail, which opened in July and can hold up to 400 detainees, primarily incarcerates adults. According to a local news report, the juvenile unit was designed to hold up to 50 kids, but the sheriff told The Daily Beast it had not been used before the transfers from Angola.
Several civil rights groups have repeatedly asked the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation into the educational services provided to children in OJJ facilities. One boy reported that he did not go to school during his five days at the Jackson Parish jail. The second boy said he had only attended school once during his first 19 days at the jail.
On Tuesday, the organizations sent the boys’ statements to the Department of Education and renewed their call for a federal investigation. Since their initial request in March, they “haven’t seen much in the way of movement,” according to Susan Meyers, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of the groups that has asked the federal agency to intervene. The Department of Education did not immediately provide answers to The Appeal’s emailed questions.
“We continue to hope that they will take some action on this complaint,” Meyers told The Appeal. “The facts on the ground, as reported by the kids themselves, warrant a full-scale investigation.”
In response to a series of questions sent to OJJ on Tuesday, a spokesperson initially directed The Appeal to file a records request for information, including how much out-of-cell and instruction time children receive at the Jackson Parish jail. In September, The Appeal filed a records request asking for the contract between OJJ and the sheriff’s office, which has not yet been provided.
In a separate correspondence last month, The Appeal asked OJJ for details on the therapeutic, educational, and visitation opportunities provided at the Jackson Parish jail. A spokesperson told The Appeal in an email that OJJ has “worked closely” with the sheriff to address the youths’ educational and mental health needs but declined to provide specifics. Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Hours after The Appeal published this story, OJJ provided an updated response, stating that the agency’s “long-term plan is to transfer all youth needing intensive therapeutic services” to a new OJJ facility in Swanson that is scheduled to open “later this year.”
“Once the new Swanson facility is open, we do not anticipate that any youth in OJJ care will be housed in Jackson Parish,” the spokesperson wrote.
After publication, the Sheriff’s Office told The Appeal in an email that there are 40 young people detained at the jail who are in the custody of the Office of Juvenile Justice, although the office could not confirm if all had been sent from Angola.
The Sheriff’s Office says the kids receive in-person instruction 10 hours a week and one hour of recreation a day. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice, the children are supposed to receive 360 minutes of school a day, which for a five-day week would come to 30 hours a week.
There have been eight documented use-of-force incidents against the kids, according to the sheriff’s office. This works out to an average of more than one use-of-force incident a week since kids from Angola arrived there in mid-September.
The children are housed in the same building as adults, but in separate dorms, “out of sight and sound.”
Before the boys arrived at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, both were told they had completed the program at Angola, according to their statements. (Their names and ages are redacted.) But instead of being transferred to an OJJ facility, they were brought to Jackson Parish.
When they arrived, they were required to wear the same orange jumpsuits the adults wore, according to one child’s statement. He reported that he rarely left his cell and was only allowed to shower twice in five days, after which he was transferred to an OJJ facility.
While at the jail, the boy spoke to his family only once. He had to buy items like deodorant from the commissary, which would otherwise be provided at OJJ facilities, according to his statement.
“Every time I left my cell, I was in handcuffs and shackles, even in the shower,” he said.
A child in another cell was maced after he asked for help with a digital tablet used to order items from the commissary, the boy reported. An officer approached the child and said, “You need help? I’ll give you help,” before macing him, according to the statement.
The second child said in his statement that they spent the first five to seven days at the jail housed in cells with a solid door, one window, and a steel flap that opened and shut. Adult prisoners talked to them through the flap, he said. After about a week, he said they were moved into a dorm.
As of October 4, he said he’d received two free phone calls since his arrival at the jail in mid-September. He hadn’t been able to have a video call with his family, which kids have to pay for. He had also not received any counseling, he said.
The guards had used mace in his dorm three to four times, according to his statement. On one occasion, a guard took a remote to the children’s television, and when they asked for it back, she “sprayed mace around the whole dorm.” Then, officers zip-tied their hands behind their backs and took them outside.
Guards made them get on their knees and left them there for about 30 minutes, the boy said. A guard told one child to stop smirking and “maced him in the face even though he obeyed her,” according to the statement.
In another incident detailed in the boy’s statement, a child was upset he could not make a phone call and “broke something.” The staff woke up everyone in the dorm, maced them, and took them outside, where they had to sit from about 10 or 11 p.m. until 4 a.m.
“When I called my mom the next morning, I was in tears,” the boy said. “My face was still burning from the mace.”
Civil rights leaders say that the state needs federal intervention to protect the rights of youth in state custody.
“Youth do not belong in adult facilities, and they certainly do not deserve the violence, abuse, and trauma that the OJJ continues to inflict upon them,” Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said in a statement. FFLIC signed the letter to the Department of Education, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and others.
“Federal intervention is direly needed because our state leaders have proved to be either unable or unwilling to effectively or humanely care for youth in their custody,” she said.