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133 Degrees and No AC: Kids at Angola Prison Kept in Potentially Deadly Heat

With heat indexes in the area regularly hitting triple digits, children incarcerated at Louisiana’s Angola prison have been locked in windowless cells for nearly 24 hours a day. One medical expert says the conditions put lives at risk.

inside of a cell at the youth detention unit at Angola prison.
A photo taken in September 2022 shows the inside of a cell at the Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana, a juvenile detention unit at Angola prison that formerly housed the state’s death row prisoners.Courtesy of the ACLU

Children incarcerated on the former death row unit of Louisiana’s Angola prison were locked in their cells without air conditioning for several days this month amid scorching summer temperatures, according to a teenager held at the facility. The child, identified by the pseudonym Charles C., said in a statement to his attorney that the kids were only let out of their cells for an eight-minute shower, which they had to take while handcuffed with their ankles shackled.

On Monday night, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other legal groups submitted statements from young people held at Angola to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. The plaintiffs asked the court to order state officials to immediately move all kids out of the unit and to cease transfers into the unit. With heat indexes in the surrounding area reaching as high as 133 degrees this month, a medical expert for the plaintiffs warned the court that the conditions could be fatal.

“I would not dare to keep my dog in these conditions for fear of my dog dying,” Dr. Susi U. Vassallo, a medical expert for the plaintiffs, wrote in a statement submitted to the court. “It has been dangerously hot in Angola so far this summer. Confining children for all or most of the day to concrete and cement buildings without air conditioning is foolhardy and perilous.”

Although some areas of the facility have air conditioning, the cells do not.

Last year, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced the plan to move children to Angola in response to news that several young people had escaped from a Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) facility. In a July 2022 press conference, Edwards claimed that certain kids needed a more secure environment than any of the state’s other facilities could provide. OJJ opened the unit later that year despite public outcry. According to a report this month by the Louisiana Illuminator, children elsewhere in the state have been held in adult jails while awaiting placement in juvenile facilities. Unlike the adult-focused Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, OJJ’s mandate is to rehabilitate—rather than punish—the individuals in its care.

OJJ declined to provide comment on Monday’s filing, citing the agency’s policy on pending litigation.

The ACLU and other legal advocates sued in August to stop the transfers to Angola due to what they said were inhumane conditions inside the facility. But a federal judge let the plan commence after OJJ promised it would provide children with education, programs, and services at the facility.

But David Utter, lead counsel in the lawsuit and executive director of the Fair Fight Initiative, told The Appeal in an interview that the agency has failed to deliver in the months since.

“What the state promised that they were going to do before they put any young people in that facility has not happened, and it’s time to stop taking the state at his word,” Utter said. “The trauma that the state is inflicting on these young people is immeasurable.”

State officials had claimed they would temporarily house children who require a higher level of supervision at Angola while they renovated an existing OJJ facility. The agency estimated it would complete those renovations by the end of April but has yet to finish the project.

Earlier this month, OJJ Deputy Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson Jr. announced that the Angola unit would close in the fall—provided the other facility’s construction proceeded on schedule.

Advocates, however, say the kids at Angola can’t wait that long. According to the lawsuit, the prison’s windowless cells ensure that the facility warms up to temperatures that exceed the triple-digit heat indexes outdoors.

Since transfers began in October, OJJ has sent as many as 80 kids to the new unit at Angola, which is now officially called the Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana. As of July 7, OJJ says 15 children were held on-site. All but one were Black.

OJJ policy states that children can be sent to Angola from other facilities for any number of reasons, including committing certain acts of violence against a staff member or possessing marijuana. Even kids determined to have a serious mental illness or “significant developmental disabilities” can be transferred to the unit.

Charles C. was hospitalized at 10 years old and diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and ADHD, according to a previous statement submitted to the court. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after being shot at age 13 and has been hospitalized several times for mental health crises.

In addition to the unbearable heat, Charles reported that a staff member had thrown him against the wall, which made him bleed.

He said he’d been denied access to educational programs and is often hungry because he doesn’t have enough food.

“I am close to getting my HISET (high school diploma)—and it makes me sad I can’t earn it,” Charles said in the filing. “They keep promising that they’ll give me education, but don’t.”

When Utter met with Charles at Angola earlier this month, Utter told The Appeal the teenager appeared exhausted. Though the room was air-conditioned, unlike the cells, Utter said it was still uncomfortably hot.

Charles told him the heat made it difficult to sleep.

“He literally had his head down on his knees almost the entire time as we spoke,” Utter said. “It was very difficult for him to communicate because he was so tired.”

After the visit, Utter said he returned to his car and saw that the temperature outside had reached nearly 100 degrees.

“They have a fan and are supposed to give us ice and water, but only provide it about half the time,” Charles said in his statement to the court. “I am often thirsty. […] When the power goes out, we don’t even have the fan.”

The day before Utter’s visit, Charles reported that staffers had let him and other kids out for two hours of recreation, during which time they were handcuffed and had their ankles shackled.

“No ball is provided, so we just sit there,” he said.

Another teenager at the facility, identified by the pseudonym Daniel D., said in his statement to the court that when he arrived at Angola, he was locked alone in his cell for three days and not allowed out except to shower. Since then, he’s been confined to his cell every day from 5:00 pm to 8 am.

Like Charles, he reported that there was no air conditioning in his housing unit and that they don’t even have working fans when the power goes out. He said the food is so atrocious that, at one point, he only ate three meals in ten days. He buys items from the commissary to sustain himself.

Dr. Vassallo, the plaintiffs’ medical expert, has also served as a witness in other lawsuits concerning poor conditions for adults at Angola—including extreme heat.

“My personal knowledge of the unconstitutional and inadequate medical care provided to adults at Angola heightens my fear that a child will deteriorate or die at Angola due to the conditions and the poor health care provided at the prison,” Vassallo wrote.

Advocates with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), a nonprofit that mentors kids and works to change the state’s juvenile legal system, have condemned officials for sending kids to Angola, a notorious maximum security prison that sits on the grounds of a former slave plantation. The group has been circulating a petition calling on Governor Edwards to close the unit.

“You’re sending Black kids to this facility and you’re calling it something else,” Antonio Travis, Youth Organizing Manager and the New Orleans chapter lead for FFLIC, told The Appeal. “You’re calling it something different as if it’s not what it is. It’s Angola.”