Louisiana Imprisons Children in a Former Death Row Unit. The Kids Say it Haunts Them.

Last year, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice began transferring children to Angola, the state’s most notorious prison. Since then, kids say they’ve suffered through horrific conditions and routine mistreatment.

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Louisiana Imprisons Children in a Former Death Row Unit. The Kids Say it Haunts Them.

Last year, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice began transferring children to Angola, the state’s most notorious prison. Since then, kids say they’ve suffered through horrific conditions and routine mistreatment.

Children held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known as the notorious Angola prison—have been locked in their cells for days at a time, only allowed to leave to shower, according to a 15-year-old who was detained at the unit. During his time there, he says guards twisted his arm and sprayed him and others with mace.   

The teen, identified as the alias Daniel D. in court records, made these claims as part of an ongoing federal court case filed by the ACLU, law firms, and a legal clinic at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. They’re demanding Louisiana close the prison’s recently created unit for children detained by the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), which is tasked with rehabilitating children in their care. Louisiana only began transferring children to the unit last year after kids escaped from another of the state’s facilities. The OJJ says there are currently five kids confined at the Angola site.

According to court documents reviewed by The Appeal, Daniel and another teenager, identified by the alias Edward E., reported that they have been subjected to cruel treatment inside the facility. In one example, Daniel said after a child hit a guard, Department of Corrections (DOC) and OJJ officers “came into the classroom and started grabbing all the kids.” 

“DOC guards grabbed and twisted my arm,” he said. After this incident, Daniel says he and the other seven children present were locked in their cells, alone, for at least three days; they were only permitted to leave to shower.

At other times, Daniel said he and other kids have been confined to their cells for entire weekends, except for when they needed to shower. Every day, they’re locked in their cells starting at 5 p.m. until about 6:45 a.m. the next morning, Daniel said in his statement. 

An OJJ spokesperson said in an email that providing The Appeal with a schedule for the young people held at Angola would pose a security risk. “In general, the youth go to school, participate in counseling, have recreational activity time, utilize the dining hall for all their meals, and participate with both in-person and virtual visits with family,” they wrote. 

Daniel told the court that when it’s cold outside, there is no hot water and the children can’t shower. The power often goes out when it rains—and the kids are then not allowed to attend school, he said. On those days, they’re locked in their cells except for lunch and dinner.

Liz Ryan, administrator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told The Appeal after this article was initially published that her office is worried about the recent reports of abuse at Angola.

“We expressed our concern when the state announced plans to move youth into an adult maximum-security prison and have offered resources and support to help officials identify alternative measures,” Ryan said in a written statement. “Children do not belong in adult prisons.”

Earlier this month, the ACLU and other legal representatives submitted Daniel and Edward’s statements to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana as part of their ongoing litigation to shut down the youth unit at Angola. 

When asked by The Appeal to respond to the allegations made in the court statements, an OJJ spokesperson wrote that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, and reiterated their commitment to the children held in their facilities. 

“We take the responsibility to ensure safety at our facilities very seriously, and we strive to create an environment for successful education and rehabilitation of the youth in our care,” they  said via email. 

Seventeen-year-old Edward was transferred from a juvenile facility to Angola in October. He has been diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. Since he arrived at Angola, he says his nightmares related to his trauma history have gotten worse.

The food is “worse than any other facility I have been to,” and often has hair in it, Edward said. On one occasion, a kid threw his plate on the ground after finding a hair in his food. The next day, Edward said the staff “blended all of [the child’s] food together and fried it into a food loaf.”

“It never even crossed my mind that these kids would be subjected to this really inhumane punishment with food that I think is meant to strip people of their dignity,” Edward’s attorney, Hector Linares, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, told The Appeal. “That one got to me, like got under my skin.”

Edward also stated that being housed in the prison’s old death row unit haunted him.

“It is very depressing to be here knowing this is the former death row,” Edward told the court during his stay in the unit. “When the lights go out at night, I think I see shadows going past.”

Last year, a few days after several kids escaped from one of the state’s secure facilities for youth, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced a plan to move about two dozen kids to a building on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The “Transitional Treatment Unit” at Angola would serve young people who need a “more restrictive housing environment,” according to OJJ, while the agency worked to develop a permanent location. 

Local groups, along with the ACLU, attempted to stop the transfers, but in September, Chief District Judge Shelly D. Dick ruled that the moves could commence, even though, she acknowledged, the children would likely suffer “psychological trauma and harm.”  

In her ruling, Dick wrote that the OJJ is “charged with a rehabilitative, not punitive, mission,” and that the unit at Angola “will provide all necessary programs and services to youth.” The unit is designed to be “therapeutic and rehabilitative while maintaining discipline, safety, and security.”

The judge dismissed concerns raised by the ACLU and their partners that kids at Angola would be subjected to “excessive or abusive solitary confinement.” Then-OJJ Assistant Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson Jr. had told the court, the judge wrote, that “legally, no child can be confined in their room for more than 8 hours and then only after an assessment; the child must be checked on an hourly basis; once the child has calmed down, they are released back into the general population.” During his testimony, Nelson also said, “We don’t punish kids placed in our custody.” Nelson is now deputy secretary of OJJ.

Incarcerating children at Angola is antithetical to the OJJ’s duty to help children in their facilities, said Kristen Rome, co-executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. 

“There is no question that these children have been placed in prison,” she told The Appeal. “The impact of a Black child having to go to that facility and be incarcerated in a former death row camp—there’s no way for us to know what that impact will be. But what we do know is that it will not make them better.”

Edward and Daniel described an environment rife with isolation, violence, and inadequate mental health and educational services. Both also reported that they were subjected to collective punishment. In one unit, Edward said, if a child “acted up,” everyone would lose recreation time and be locked in their cells instead. After a kid hit a guard in the dining hall, Daniel said, the staff “started macing all of us.” Daniel added that the guards exacted a particularly brutal punishment for the boy who had struck the guard—they maced and punched him while he was on the ground.

Nancy Rosenbloom, a senior litigation advisor at the ACLU National Prison Project, told The Appeal that the state has not given kids the rehabilitative programs that it promised in court.

“It’s outrageous that the state would put several witnesses on the stand in federal court to say, ‘Just trust us, judge. We’re going to provide all of the legally required services,’ and then simply not do it,” she said.

The state also said fabric would surround the perimeter of the facility to comply with federal law, which requires that incarcerated children and adults cannot see or hear each other. Private attorney Christopher Murell told The Appeal that when he visited Daniel, the cloth was already shredding and ripped apart. Murrell said the fabric is attached to a giant fence with spools of razor wire on top. 

“You know you are walking into a serious, felony institution when you walk into the area where the kids are being held,” he said.

Since Edward and Daniel provided their statements, both have been transferred out of Angola, according to the ACLU. However, they can be sent back to Angola for any number of reasons, including committing certain acts of violence against a staff member or possessing marijuana, according to OJJ policy. The agency can also send kids with serious mental illness or significant developmental disabilities to Angola. 

The possibility of returning to Angola hasn’t left Daniel’s mind. 

“Even if they transfer me to another facility, I am worried they will ship me back here to Angola,” he said. 

Black children, as Daniel and Edward identify, are disproportionately represented throughout the juvenile justice system, particularly in Louisiana. As of August of last year, over 80 percent of the more than 320 kids sent to juvenile detention facilities in Louisiana were Black, even though they make up less than 40 percent of the general population, according to OJJ data. More than 100 young people were detained for non-violent, misdemeanor, or “technical” reasons, the OJJ says.

The Appeal filed public records requests for information on the ages and races of those held at Angola, but the agency has said they have no records responsive to the request. When asked for the racial make-up of the five youth currently held at Angola, an OJJ spokesperson told The Appeal via email that due “to the confidential nature of juvenile records, OJJ cannot release identifying information pertaining to youth to the media.”

Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), said in a written statement that the significance of housing children of color at Angola should not be lost on the public.

“The fact that Black children are being locked in cages on a former plantation for enslaved Africans is already an immeasurable offense, but to also learn that they are being held in solitary confinement without necessary services, education, or even recreation, is unconscionable,” she said. 

In November, activists with FFLIC attempted to confront the governor at a public meeting and present him with their petition demanding that he shut down Angola’s youth unit. They were denied entry to the meeting until after he left, according to the group.  

“We have said time and time again that nothing good can come from housing youth in Angola, but the governor and the Office of Juvenile Justice have been determined to ignore what’s right,” Womack said. “Under their leadership, Louisiana has become even more of a shame to our nation—and this abuse has only added to our reputation as a failure in education and child wellbeing.”

This piece has been updated to include a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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