Louisiana could soon test the boundaries of laws that block the incarceration of children alongside adults — for the second time in 15 months.
The state Office of Juvenile Justice plans to move 15 to 20 incarcerated girls to the defunct Jetson Center for Youth in Baker by the end of the year, even though Jetson already houses hundreds of adult women prisoners.
State and federal laws require young people in the custody of the juvenile justice system to be separated from incarcerated adults in jails and prisons. They aren’t supposed to be able to see or hear each other — let alone share facilities or participate in activities together — because of threats of coercion and violence from the adults.
“Whenever you have adults and kids in the same facility, that’s a concern,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, co-executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which provides legal representation to youth in the juvenile justice system.
Juvenile justice officials said they will comply with the law when the incarcerated girls, currently housed at the Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville, move to Jetson.
“OJJ has made the necessary arrangements to make certain that the female youth will be completely separated from any adult unit at all times,” spokesperson Nicolette Gordon wrote in a press release last week. “The unit for the female youth will comply with Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Federal Guidelines of sight and sound separation.”
Child welfare advocates are skeptical of the state’s commitment, especially given its recent juvenile justice struggles at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the state’s largest maximum security adult prison.
“We know youth do not belong in adult facilities, and that is why it is beyond frustrating to watch OJJ make the same mistake over and over again,” Gina Womack, co-founder and executive director of Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, wrote in a response to the Illuminator.
Just last month, U.S. Judge Shelly Dick ordered the state to shut down a controversial juvenile justice center it opened last year at Angola over inadequate educational and mental health services. The judge also slammed state officials for leaning heavily on solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool at the Angola site, despite assuring her it would be used sparingly.
“Virtually every promise was broken,” Dick said in September to the juvenile justice officials who first pitched her on the Angola location a year ago.
Louisiana is appealing Dick’s ruling, but still removed the incarcerated youth from maximum security prison as a precaution. Opponents of the Angola plan are now raising some of the same complaints about the proposed arrangement at Jetson.
“I think we should all be concerned that assurances from OJJ on paper don’t mean anything,” said Hector Linares, who runs the youth section of the Stuart Smith Loyola University Law Clinic in New Orleans.
Incarcerated girls and women could overlap at Jetson for over a year. Adult women have been held at Jetson since 2016, when the old women’s prison in St. Gabriel flooded so badly it became uninhabitable. The state won’t open its new women’s prison until early 2025, and the adult prisoners are unlikely to move out of Jetson until that time.
The arrangement could also invite a lawsuit. The litigation over the juvenile justice facility at Angola was initially centered on the state’s ability to separate incarcerated adults and children sufficiently.
Linares said trying to comply with sight and sound separation at Jetson will be much more difficult at Jetson than it was at Angola.
Angola is a sprawling facility on a former plantation where different parts of the campus are more than a mile apart from each other. Jetson is a fraction of that size, and many of the existing buildings are arranged around a courtyard, he said.
The sight-and-separation restrictions at Angola may also have exacerbated problems for the juvenile justice programming there, Linares said. Because incarcerated youth had to be kept separated from the adult prisoners at all times, it restricted their movement.
Angola may be a large property with expansive green space, but the incarcerated youth in custody there were limited to a relatively small yard surrounded by a fence covered in black fabric in order to keep the young people and adult prisoners from seeing each other, he said. The staff may have been prone to use solitary confinement more often because there weren’t many other options for putting space between young people causing problems and the larger group, he said.
The Office of Juvenile Justice has not responded to questions sent last week asking for more details about the arrangements at Jetson. But some legislators are also worried about the plans.
“I am not comfortable with having [the incarcerated girls] on the same site as adult prisoners,” Rep. Vanessa LaFleur, D-Baton Rouge, said. “I think this should be of great concern to everyone in the Legislature.”
LaFleur said she plans to ask about the Jetson plans during a hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol on juvenile justice facility standards.
Source : Louisana Illuminator