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Louisiana Ordered to Remove Teens From Angola State Prison

By Natasha Bakirci, LLB, LLM | Last updated on

It is generally accepted that there are four main reasons for imprisonment:

  • The protection of society
  • Deterrence
  • Punishment/retribution, and
  • Rehabilitation

As the great Nelson Mandela observed: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones."

The age at which minors can be held responsible for their criminal acts varies between states. In Louisiana, the age of criminal responsibility is set at 10. It is also a state with one of the highest global incarceration rates and has recently come under judicial scrutiny due to the detention conditions of its juvenile offenders.

The Controversial Move from Juvenile Detention to Maximum-Security Prison

Angola is a Portuguese-speaking country in Southern Africa. It's also the name of a state penitentiary notorious for its brutal conditions and treatment of prisoners, named after the country from which enslaved people were brought and forced to work on plantations in the area. In the 1960s, this infamous prison gained a reputation as "the bloodiest prison in the South," and is sometimes also referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South."

On July 19, 2022, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards controversially decided to move teens from the Bridge City Center for Youth, a juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, to Angola prison. This followed a spate of violent skirmishes, riots, and some breakouts, which frightened local residents. The move to Angola prison was only intended to be a temporary solution until more secure youth facilities were available.

'Intolerable Conditions' of Detention

Approximately 80 children, nearly all black, some as young as 15 — have been held in the same cells where condemned death row inmates previously awaited execution. Their complaints include being subjected to long periods of solitary confinement (called "cell restriction"), the prevalent use of mace, handcuffs, shackles, and insufferable heat (due to no air conditioning or ventilation) at a time when Louisiana declared a state of emergency because of extreme temperatures. The children were also not receiving necessary education and mental health services. There were also worries regarding their proximity to adult inmates and allegations of physical abuse by guards.

The Associated Press has reported that Henry Patterson IV, who was an employee at the juvenile section in Angola, witnessed children being kept in solitary "cell restriction" for as long as five or six days. Research shows that solitary confinement can lead to both mental and physical distress, including anxiety, depression, and suicide, and can make it harder for inmates to re-enter society.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)'s Emergency Motion

In August 2023, the ACLU filed an emergency motion to remove these children from Angola prison due to the abusive conditions in which they were being kept. They were joined by the Fair Fight Initiative in their class action complaint, in the case of Alex A. v. EdwardsThe complaint refers to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which requires that juvenile detainees be separated from incarcerated adults. It also alleges that the state of Louisiana's failure to perform its duty to provide reasonable health and safety conditions to these youths exposed them to a substantial risk of serious harm in violation of their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Order that Children Must Be Removed from Angola Prison

On September 8, 2023, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick gave Louisiana until Friday, September 15, to remove children from the maximum-security adult prison due to serious concerns about the safety and suitability of their detention. Judge Dick found that the teens' confinement at Angola amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and violated their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as a federal law that protects children with disabilities. Judge Dick reported witnessing kids eating meals and playing cards whilst handcuffed on her visit to the prison. In fact, it was Judge Dick herself that had allowed the relocation to Angola, provided that appropriate staff, educational, medical, and mental health facilities were made available.

The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice released a statement that it had taken "extraordinary measures to ensure" that the minors' detention complied with "state and federal law requiring the youth to continue receiving education classes, have suitable living conditions, and be completely separated from any adult inmates."

Louisiana state officials have indicated that they intend to lodge an emergency appeal (writ) against this decision, asking the judge to pause her removal ruling while they appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. They maintain that the juveniles in question have demonstrated violent behavior and are a threat to themselves and others.

Public Safety or Retribution?

The purported intention behind transferring these troubled youths to a place as harsh as the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola was the protection of the community. Yet the ACLU successfully showed in court that Angola's treatment of child prisoners was aimed at punishing them for antisocial, unacceptable, or dangerous behavior. While these harrowing tales might have a deterrent effect, it must not be forgotten that we are talking about children, still in their teens, with a lifetime ahead of them. This is when the rehabilitative factor of the justice system should be most prominent.

Authorities must respect the legal rights of prisoners, whoever they are. In particular, they must ensure that they do their utmost to reform child inmates, who are often disenfranchised, neglected, or abused. It is important to offer minors the possibility of a better path. That is why education, counseling, and sanitary living conditions are paramount. Most of us are familiar with the adage "prevention is better than cure." When it comes to the treatment of juvenile offenders, rehabilitation should be society's key aim.

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