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Louisiana pays tens of thousands a month to lock up kids in adult jail

The state’s youth incarceration agency entered into a two-year contract with the Jackson Parish Jail to lock up children—some of whom have been incarcerated at Angola, the state’s most notorious prison.

This photo shows a Jackson Parish Sheriff's Office cruiser/
Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office

Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) pays tens of thousands of dollars per month to lock up kids in the Jackson Parish Jail, according to documents obtained by The Appeal. Since September, the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office has billed the juvenile justice agency more than $160,000, according to the Sheriff’s Office invoices. Some children at the jail had previously been housed in the former death row unit at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—better known as Angola—but were moved amid outcry over incarcerating kids at one of the nation’s most notorious prisons.

On Sept. 15, OJJ announced that they had moved all children out of Angola to “a new juvenile justice facility.” But the kids were instead taken to the Jackson Parish Jail, another adult lock-up, albeit a less notorious one than Angola.

The facility, which can imprison up to 400 adults, had opened in July and included a juvenile unit that could lock up as many as 50 kids. While the sheriff told The Daily Beast the unit had not been used before the transfers from Angola, documents obtained by The Appeal show that children from other, unspecified locations were incarcerated at the jail before the kids from Angola arrived. As of Nov. 21, 24 kids in OJJ custody—aged 14 to 18—were detained at the jail, according to sheriff’s office records obtained by The Appeal. Many were booked into the jail after the state emptied the Angola unit.

The Appeal obtained a copy of the contract between OJJ and the Sheriff’s Office, which shows the agency reserved 30 beds for kids and pays a daily rate of about $143 per bed—and can be charged even if the spaces are not occupied. If OJJ exceeds the number of reserved beds, the agency must pay $250 per day unless the contract is amended. The document was not signed until a week after the kids from Angola arrived. The agency also agreed to pay for any damage caused to the building and medical costs. OJJ previously said it would open a new facility for children and move all kids there by April 2023. But it has not met that timeline. In September, when the agency announced kids would be sent to the Jackson Parish Jail, OJJ said it expected to move all kids out of the jail by the end of the year.

But the children remain. Last week, the agency said it expects to open the new OJJ facility by the end of the month and move all kids out of Jackson Parish Jail in January.

OJJ’s partnership with the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office is part of a more than year-long saga within the state’s troubled juvenile justice system, which is mandated by law to rehabilitate—not punish—kids in its care. In July, the Louisiana Illuminator reported that OJJ was sending children to adult jails while they waited for a placement in an OJJ facility.

The sheriff’s office and OJJ did not respond to calls or questions sent multiple times via email.

Last year, after several kids ran away from an OJJ facility, state officials announced they would temporarily move some children to the state’s former death row unit at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, to keep stricter watch over them. The ACLU and other legal groups then sued to stop the transfers. But U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ruled they could commence after OJJ officials assured her they would provide all children with educational and rehabilitative services.

In September, Dick found that OJJ broke “virtually every promise” made to the court and ordered the agency to remove all kids from Angola. The preliminary injunction expires on Thursday, allowing OJJ to move kids back to Angola. The plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction which would ban OJJ from housing kids at Angola is still pending before Judge Dick’s court.

The three-page contract between OJJ and the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office states that the sheriff’s office will “coordinate with OJJ regarding the educational and programming needs of OJJ youth,” including, but not limited to, “educational requirements, mental health programming, and social services needs.” However, the agreement contains no minimum requirements for recreation, education, or rehabilitation.

The Appeal filed a public records request with the sheriff’s office for schooling, programming, recreation, visitation, and disciplinary policies for children detained at the jail. The sheriff’s office responded by directing The Appeal to the Offender Orientation Handbook.

The handbook states that OJJ kids will attend school and that all “juvenile offenders”—kids are sent to the jail by OJJ and other agencies—will receive up to an hour a day of “yard time” as long as it is “feasible for security.”

The rest of the handbook details rules that govern the minutiae of a detainee’s life and makes no distinction between adults and kids. According to the rulebook, detainees are prohibited from speaking with staff and volunteers other than “facility-related matters” and “common greetings.” They are not allowed to talk in the chow hall or corridors.

The handbook states that in-person visitation is prohibited unless permitted by the sheriff or his designee. In October, the OJJ spokesperson told The Appeal that all kids in their custody can participate in in-person and virtual visits with family. However, the jail handbook and contract contain no language mandating in-person visits for children.

Advocates have raised concerns about the jail’s conditions and have repeatedly asked the federal government to intervene. In October, civil rights groups sent two detained boys’ statements to the U.S. Department of Education and asked the agency to investigate OJJ. One child said he had not received any schooling during his five-day stay at the jail. The other said he attended classes only once during his first 19 days at the lock-up.

The Appeal has repeatedly asked the Sheriff’s Office and OJJ for details on schooling, recreation, and out-of-cell time.

In September, the OJJ spokesperson emailed that the agency “worked closely with the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO) to assess educational and social service/counseling needs.” When pressed for details, the spokesperson said, “I will defer to Jackson Parish Correctional Center to answer any further questions as it pertains to their educational and social services.” The Sheriff’s Office did not respond at that time.

In response to an Oct. 25 story on the boys’ statements, the OJJ spokesperson emailed that the agency “refutes the allegations concerning the treatment of the youth.” She added, “All youth in our secure custody must go to school for 360 minutes per day.” The following day, the sheriff’s office said in an email that kids from OJJ receive 10 hours of in-person instruction per week—just one-third of what OJJ mandates.

The boys wrote in their statements that they were not only denied access to their education but also held in dangerous conditions. Both told their attorney that in their first few days at the jail, adult detainees spoke to them when they passed their cells, potentially in violation of a federal law mandating the separation of adult and child prisoners. One boy said that, during the rare occasions when he was allowed to leave his cell, he was shackled—even when he showered. The boy said that a guard maced a child because the kid had asked for help with his tablet.

The other child, who was 15 at the time he gave the statement, reported that one night, guards maced his dorm and then forced them to sit outside from 10 or 11 p.m. until 4 a.m. the following day. He said that when he spoke to his mom the next morning, he was in tears and his face was still burning. Between mid-September and late October, there were eight use-of-force incidents against kids at the jail who were in OJJ custody, a spokesperson with the sheriff’s office told The Appeal.

“This jail is for adults,” the boy told his attorney. “It is no place for any young person.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include information on the expiration of the preliminary injunction that required OJJ to move youth from the Angola facility.