BATON ROUGE — A federal judge said Tuesday that based on what she has heard so far, Louisiana is showing a “deliberate indifference” toward juveniles held at a youth center on the grounds of the state penitentiary at Angola.
U.S. District Judge Shelley Dick said those challenging Louisiana’s sending its worst young offenders to the Bridge City Center for Youth in West Feliciana had adequately demonstrated problems at the facility.
She rejected the state’s request to end the proceedings immediately and lawyers representing the Office of Juvenile Justice called a social services counselor as its first witness.
The case is expected to end Wednesday. The American Civil Liberties Union wants Louisiana to stop sending young people to Angola, saying it is unsuitable for children even though they are held separately from adult offenders.
The state is using the site temporarily, until a new youth center is opened later this year in Monroe.
Dick said from the bench that, at this point in the hearing, she has seen signs of “deliberate indifference,” noting testimony from one state official who said he had expected property damage from the young offenders, and that he had replaced hundreds of televisions and not been bothered by that.
She also noted a lack of teachers over the summer kept educational progress to a minimum.
She said it appeared that placing youths at Angola was punitive, and that “is not a path toward public safety. It is a path toward hardening these youths.”
The hearing resumed Tuesday after a week off. In previous testimony, the co-creator of a program for young criminal offenders testified that recent violence at Angola — including bloodshed and broken bones — had led to an increase in cell restrictions that isolate children from their peers.
Lee Anthony Underwood testified incidents in May and June had been “more harsh” than those that came before, but Dick said Tuesday she didn’t want lawyers to spend time tracing the use of isolation techniques to compel changes in youth behavior. The sides agreed before the hearing to consider what life has been like at Angola since June 1.
Sandra Bryant, a counselor trained by Underwood, testified she works daily to assess the children’s moods and to bring them around to being amenable to learning. She also said the youths have two to three phone calls and two to three video meetings with their families each week — and more often if desired.
She said there are currently 15 youths at the center, taking part in a four-to-eight-week program.
During cross-examination, a lawyer for the children’s advocates noted Bryant herself was neither a counselor nor a psychologist and wouldn’t be able to diagnose depression in teenagers held in isolation. Bryant said she resented any implication that she was doing what she could to help the youth.
She called the allegations “hurtful” and said she felt humiliated.
“It’s disheartening for me to be sitting here knowing what I do and the impact I have with our kids and their parents,” she said. “You can call all the parents and ask them the impact I’ve had on their children.
“I love what I do. I get up every morning to do this,” Bryant said.
Travion Gordon, a lieutenant colonel with OJJ who is assigned to Angola, testified that the center was necessary to keep the worst youth from having a negative impact on others.
“One youth can change the whole dynamic of a facility,” he said.
He said centers with 15 youth often, for example, have maybe five youth not complying with orders. At Angola, it’s probably 14 out of 15.
When recounting the types of troubles he’s seen at Louisiana facilities, he said one offender “bit a chunk of flesh out of a staff member” and also spoke of an offender’s plan to strike an employee in the head with a fire extinguisher. He was not asked about specifics.
He said cell restrictions were necessary to provide the best environment for staff and the youth. “They do better when on cell restrictions,” including one-on-one attention during their studies.
Source : WBRZ