A Court Order Banning Louisiana From Holding Youth at Angola Expires Soon. What’s Next?

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A federal court order that bars Louisiana from housing incarcerated youth at the state penitentiary at Angola expires this month, raising questions about whether state officials might try to move troubled teens back to the maximum security adult prison. 

Attorneys for the state and civil rights lawyers fighting the Angola placement disagree on when the court’s injunction ends. Those representing incarcerated youth believe the ban will be lifted Thursday, Dec. 7. The state’s legal team thinks it doesn’t run out until next Wednesday, Dec. 13. 

Either way, Louisiana officials haven’t been clear about whether they intend to put young people back on the grounds of Angola once the federal order lapses. 

The Office of Juvenile Justice did not return a phone call and emails Wednesday. Gov.-elect Jeff Landry, who takes office Jan. 8, declined to comment through a spokesperson. 

Civil rights attorneys are seeking a permanent ban on juvenile justice use of the Angola site, but such a court ruling would be several months away, if it ever came at all.

“The question is: Is the state going to move the kids back?” said David Utter, an attorney who has been trying to shutter the juvenile justice facility at Angola. 

With the blessing of Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Office of Juvenile Justice started housing a handful of incarcerated youth at a building just inside the front gate of Angola in the fall of 2022. 

Edwards said he opened the facility at an adult prison to help control a small group of young people who had destroyed property and escaped from the state’s other juvenile centers.

But a year later, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ordered the Angola site shut down and declared the education and mental health services it offered inadequate. She also condemned state officials for using solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray on youth at Angola, and expressed outrage that family visits were restricted.

“The Office of Juvenile Justice is deliberately indifferent to the educational rights and needs of the youth in their care at Angola and quick to lock youth in cells for their administrative convenience,” the judge wrote.

Angola was used far more frequently for incarcerated youth than state officials initially said it would be. The facility only has about 25 beds. But over the year it was open, 70 to 80 of the state’s 375 incarcerated youths cycled through it in short stints.  

The state complied with Dick’s mandate and transferred all youth at Angola to a new facility in Jackson Parish Sept. 15. Yet the Edwards’ administration has continued to fight her order in court. 

On Tuesday afternoon, its attorneys tried to convince a three-judge panel with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to throw out Dick’s Angola ban, even though it is set to expire on its own in a matter of days. 

No young people are currently staying at Angola, but state officials said the facility needs to remain an option because it is more secure than any other juvenile justice building. 

“To date, [the Angola site] has provided it is the only facility that these youth have been unable to escape or to destroy and render uninhabitable,” Curtis Nelson, head of the state juvenile justice system, said in a written statement to the appellate court in Septemeber. 

“As a matter of public safety, and safety for all youth within the OJJ secure care system, OJJ needs [Angola] as an available housing option – regardless of whether youth are currently housed at [Angola] at any given time,” wrote attorney Lem Montgomery in a legal brief on behalf of the state. 

Montgomery also argued the appellate judges should throw out Dick’s order because two of incarcerated youth bringing the lawsuit should not have been allowed to file it in the first place. 

Neither of the two had exhausted the juvenile justice system’s internal complaint process, as required before turning to the courts for help, Montgomery said. One of the young people was also only threatened with a move to the Angola site but ultimately never ended up being transferred there. 

Civil rights attorneys representing the incarcerated youth disagreed with Montgomery’s assessment, saying their clients had followed proper procedure for filing a lawsuit. 

Instead, the civil rights lawyers argued the judges should declare the state’s appeal of Dick’s order moot because it’s set to expire shortly. 

During Tuesday’s hearing, the judges also appeared to be confused at times about why they were deliberating over a court order set to end so soon.

“There’s no emergency here at the moment,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham told the lawyers.  

The judges have not provided a timeline for when they might rule in the case. 

In the meantime, OJJ plans to open a new secure youth facility next month on the grounds of the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe. 

The new 72-bed  building has been constructed to make it harder for young people to escape. Each person incarcerated in this section of Swanson will be housed in an individual room, instead of a dormitory setting where several people bunk together.

The Monroe facility is expected to be used for higher risk youth, such as those that were held at Angola. It will include the Cypress Unit, an intensive therapeutic program for the state juvenile system’s most troubled people.

When Edwards made the decision to open the juvenile facility at Angola, he said the move was only temporary until the high-security facility at Monroe came online. The young people initially placed at Angola would eventually be sent to Monroe, juvenile justice officials said at the time.

Source : Louisiana Illuminator