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Kids Held in Adult Louisiana Jail Sleep on Floor, Shot With Pepper Balls, Filing Says

The ACLU sued the state after it moved children to the former death row unit at the notorious Angola prison. But a court filing says the kids have faced abuse in their new facility, too.

Louisiana State Penitentiary. msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Children incarcerated in Louisiana’s Jackson Parish Jail have been forced to sleep on the floor, shot at with pepper balls, and imprisoned close to adults, according to documents filed today in federal court.

The filing says young people at the jail reported that they were confined to overcrowded cells for nearly 24 hours a day and were only permitted to shower every other day. Some said they had to sleep on a thin mattress on the floor with a blanket and no pillow. Today’s filing says that, as of March 11, 36 kids who are in the custody of OJJ “are incarcerated with adults at the Jackson Parish Jail in shocking and abysmal conditions.” 

Despite a federal mandate to keep incarcerated children and adults separated, kids told their legal team that adults passed by their cells and saw them in the hallway and cafeteria. The filing says young people in OJJ custody who are 18 and older reported that they were placed in cells with adults and saw fights and stabbings almost every day. Several of the young people, all of whom are Black, said staff at the jail frequently called them “boy.”

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other legal groups submitted these accounts in federal court today as part of their years-long effort to keep Louisiana’s kids out of adult lock-ups. The OJJ told The Appeal they are not able to comment on any pending litigation at this time.

In 2022, after several children ran away from an Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) facility, state officials announced they would temporarily incarcerate some children at the former death row unit at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—more infamously known as Angola. Advocates said the plan violated the juvenile justice agency’s mission to rehabilitate, not punish, kids in their care.

The ACLU and other legal groups sued to stop the transfers, but U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ruled they could proceed. In September, Dick reversed course and issued a preliminary injunction ordering the OJJ to remove all kids from the unit at Angola. That ruling expired in December.

On September 15, the OJJ announced that all kids at Angola had been sent to a “new juvenile justice facility.” However, they were taken to the Jackson Parish Jail, where they were confined in yet another adult lock-up—and allegedly in similarly abusive conditions

Kids reported that they have also been housed in a dorm where staff maced them, shot them with pepper balls, and used “taser gloves” on them. The children said that when staff maced the dorm one day, the kids tried to “crawl up closer to the vents, attempting to find air,” and that young people with asthma could not breathe. On another occasion, staff allegedly maced the dorm, then took the kids outside, made them get on their knees with their hands tied behind their backs, and forced them to stay outside in the cold. (In response to a grievance filed on one child’s behalf, the OJJ said tasers are not used in the unit where the child was housed and that “chemical spray is used sparingly” when necessary to “protect persons and property.”)

In September, the OJJ signed a two-year contract with the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office for 30 beds at a daily rate of $143 per bed, and a daily rate of $250 for any additional beds. The contract says the OJJ can be charged for the 30 reserved beds even if they’re not occupied. 

In February, the state asked Dick to dismiss the ACLU’s lawsuit because no children are held at Angola, and the agency “currently has no plans” to reopen the unit or to house children at “any facility designed/constructed to house adult prisoners/inmates.” The state says the Jackson Parish Jail is a “collocated facility” that “separately houses youth and adults in the same building or complex.”

But the ACLU has pushed back and insists a permanent injunction is necessary to ensure the OJJ does not reopen the unit at Angola or send kids to any other adult facility. The civil rights group told the court that, under the newly elected Republican Gov. Jeff Landry, it fears the OJJ will send more children to adult lock-ups. 

“Especially with the recent legislative changes, and given the Governor’s public statements and actions, there is a significant risk that Defendants will confine youth at adult facilities, including but not limited to the Jackson Parish Jail, in the future,” the attorneys wrote.

Last month, Landry convened a nine-day special legislative session “to address crime in Louisiana,” despite data that indicates crime is falling in parts of the state. In his opening statement for the session, Landry said children who are 17 and charged with felonies should be tried as adults and that all children found guilty of “violent crime” should be incarcerated for at least three years. 

“These juveniles are not innocent children any longer; they are hardened criminals,” he said. “They violently attack our citizens, our law enforcement officers, and even our juvenile correction officers without hesitation.”

Landry also alarmed local children’s rights activists by choosing Kenneth “Kenny” Loftin, the former head of the Ware Youth Center, to serve as OJJ director. A 2022 investigation by the New York Times and students at the University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism revealed that staff at that youth center had sexually, physically, and psychologically tormented children in their care, driving many to attempt suicide. Loftin declined to speak to those reporters. 

Last year, in response to a public records request for policies for children detained at the jail, the sheriff’s office directed The Appeal to the Offender Orientation Handbook

There are very few references to children in the handbook. It states that OJJ kids will attend school and receive up to an hour a day of “yard time” if it is “feasible for security.” 

Detainees are forbidden from speaking with staff and volunteers other than for “facility-related matters” and “common greetings.” The handbook also says incarcerated people cannot talk in the chow hall or corridors and that in-person visitation is prohibited unless permitted by the sheriff or his designee. 

The OJJ has repeatedly said that it is temporarily using the Jackson Parish Jail while it builds a new facility at the Swanson Center for Youth, a child prison in Monroe. Officials initially said the new unit would open last spring. But the OJJ now says the new facility will open by the end of the month and that the agency has completed renovations on a different wing at the Swanson site called the Cypress Unit. 

One of the young people who was incarcerated at Angola and the Jackson Parish Jail has been transferred to Cypress. In a grievance filed on his behalf, he said he is held in solitary confinement for 20 hours a day and that school is offered for no more than three hours daily.

The child said the kids are regularly strip-searched and that a tactical team allegedly comes into the unit and maces them. In its written response to the grievance, the OJJ said that mace and strip searches are only used to ensure the safety of staff and young people and that the child’s allegations about solitary confinement and schooling were “factually incorrect.”

The child also said that a guard strip-searched him, hit him with a flashlight, and then maced him three times. Another time, the boy was allegedly maced in his cell after he said he was suffering from a panic attack. 

“He felt like he would die in the cell,” the grievance says.