Federal Judge Orders Louisiana to Move Kids out of Angola Prison
Children in the former death row unit at Angola, one of the nation’s most infamous prisons, have been locked in solitary confinement, shackled while they eat and play, and attacked by guards.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Sep 08, 2023
A federal judge ordered Louisiana officials on Friday to begin moving kids out of the former death row unit at Angola, one of the nation’s most notorious prisons.
In remarks from court, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick accused state officials of breaking “virtually every promise” they had made when announcing the plan to move children to the prison, according to NOLA.com.
Dick’s ruling found that authorities at the facility had locked children up in cells for days at a time as a form of punishment, punished detained youth with the use of handcuffs, mace, and denial of family visits, and failed to provide appropriate educational and social services and mental health treatment, according to a press release from the ACLU, which was part of the legal team that filed suit against the placements.
The ruling gives the state one week to move youth out of Angola.
“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,” David Utter, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, said in a statement after the ruling. “We are grateful to our clients and their families for their bravery in speaking out and standing up against this cruelty.”
The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) issued a statement on Friday suggesting the state would challenge the ruling.
“While we disagree with the court’s ruling today and will be seeking an emergency writ, we will continue to explore every option available to us that ensures the safety of staff, community members, and youth in our care,” said OJJ Deputy Sec. Curtis Nelson Jr.
Dick’s ruling is the latest development in a more than year-long battle over the state’s widely condemned decision to transfer kids from secure juvenile facilities to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison informally known as Angola.
Last year, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced the plan after several young people escaped from an OJJ facility. The American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups sued to stop the plan, but in September 2022, Judge Dick ruled that the unit could open after OJJ told the court it would provide education, programs, and services to the children while they were at the facility.
Earlier this summer, attorneys for the children asked the court to force the state to remove the kids from the unit and cease further transfers, citing inhumane conditions. One child had told his attorney that they’d been confined to their cells, which lacked air conditioning, for days at a time and had only been permitted out to shower in leg shackles and handcuffs. The State has asserted that the housing units are, in fact, air-conditioned but that the AC unit needed repairs and that there had been recent power outages. An FAQ published on OJJ’s website states that the agency “has worked diligently and deliberately to make certain the three-wing unit at BCCY-WF is fully air conditioned.”
Since transfers began in October, OJJ says that between 70 and 80 kids have been detained at Angola, which sits on the site of a former slave plantation. As of July 7, the unit held 15 children; all but one were Black.
On August 18, the state agreed not to send additional kids to Angola while the court case was pending. But on August 30, the last day of hearings, the state backed out of the agreement, according to a report from Verite News. Three days prior, several children had allegedly escaped from the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie, an OJJ secure care facility.
After the hearing ended, the attorney for the state said that keeping Angola open was necessary to “keep the public safe,” Verite reported.
Shortly after the ACLU filed its motion, Judge Dick visited the Angola unit. She saw one child, in handcuffs, eating while a guard stood over him. Elsewhere, three kids, also handcuffed, played cards, the Associated Press reported.
Last month, at a hearing in Judge Dick’s courtroom, witnesses corroborated what the children and their attorneys have asserted for months—that kids are locked alone in their cells for much of the day.
A teacher at Angola testified that the kids spend about half their school day alone in their cells, according to local news outlet The Lens.
Although state law bans the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment for children in OJJ’s care, agency policy directs kids at Angola to be placed on “cell restriction” for between 24 and 72 hours for misbehavior, such as throwing feces or destroying their mattress. OJJ policy allows kids with serious mental illnesses or “significant developmental disabilities” to be transferred to Angola.
Studies show that solitary confinement can create and exacerbate mental illness, especially among vulnerable populations like people with disabilities and children.
At an August hearing, a supervisor told the court that children on “cell restriction” are checked on frequently and permitted out of their cell for mental health and medical calls, recreation, and programming, The Lens reported.
According to state records, eight children were on “cell restriction” for more than eight hours on July 1 and July 2. The names are redacted, making it unclear if these were the same children on both days. The state listed “behavior issues” as the justification for placing each child in confinement. Observation reports from 9 AM to 5:30 PM for some of the kids on one tier state they were permitted out of their cells to shower and for recreation, which lasted between 30 and 60 minutes.
State witnesses testified that all children, even those not on “cell restriction,” are locked in their cells from 5:30 PM to 7:30 AM the following day, and they generally eat breakfast and dinner inside their cells, The Lens reported.
Even though OJJ is supposed to provide a therapeutic environment for children, agency policy states that at Angola, a child’s snack can be reduced as punishment for several behaviors, including not showering, refusing medication, or not making their bed.
Even before the transfers began last year, one child told the court that he and other kids were “terrified” of being sent to Angola, and some had been sobbing over the prospect.
In addition to extended periods of isolation, kids and their attorneys say guards have maced and physically attacked children.
On August 2, court records say a guard maced a child while he was locked in his cell. In a deposition taken the day after the incident, the guard admitted he had done so after the child had thrown an unknown substance from a cup.
According to the plaintiffs’ court filing, surveillance video of the incident shows an officer reaching his arm through the cell bars and dispensing a substance. Officers can then be seen gagging, coughing, and running off the tier, the plaintiffs state. The children, however, were left in their cells.
After six minutes, the filing says the guard who maced the child, now in a gas mask, “violently” took the child he maced off the tier. Then several other officers entered the unit, also in what appeared to be gas masks, and an officer distributed what appeared to be paper masks to the children. The plaintiffs reported that one child slammed his body against the bars of his cell for at least 14 minutes.
The children at Angola have described similar instances of mistreatment in prior statements to the court. In July, a child identified in court documents as Charles C. said that an officer slammed him against a wall, possibly into glass, cutting his skin. The next day, Charles said a guard maced a kid locked in the cell next to him, who was in handcuffs and shackles. The mace carried over to his cell, burning his open wound.
Charles was hospitalized at 10 years old and diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and ADHD, he told the court. At 13, he was shot and later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
While at Angola, Charles said he’d been confined to his cell for days at a time, only allowed out to shower. He was often hungry and had been denied access to education.
“I am close to getting my HISET (high school diploma)—and it makes me sad I can’t earn it,” he said. “They keep promising that they’ll give me education, but don’t.”
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