Days after an emergency filing was made to remove juveniles from the Louisiana State Penitentiary because of potentially deadly heat conditions, the judge assigned to the case conducted a surprise visit to the facility.
Although the judge’s findings have not been revealed yet, last week’s emergency federal court filing argued that dozens of mostly Black boys are routinely placed in solitary confinement for 72 hours in sweltering cells in the prison, also known as Angola. The ACLU is arguing that the state, which had the highest incarceration rates in the nation over the past decade, is deliberately indifferent to how the conditions are harming the teens.
There is a hearing set for Aug. 15 for the ACLU to prove its case. The filing is asking the court to order the state to remove the children from Angola and place “them in youth-appropriate non-punitive settings, and bar the state from placing children in adult carceral facilities,” according to a press release issued by the ACLU.
“They’re [prison officials] more concerned about efficiencies that give them more space for people to house more individuals, and they are more concerned about keeping people in, keeping people in conditions that makes them feel their punishment in addition to their loss of freedom,” Tammie Gregg, the deputy director of ACLU’s National Prison Project, told Capital B on Monday.
As deadly heat continues to engulf much of the South, experts argue that many people don’t value the lives of those imprisoned because they’re hidden away.
Thee recent emergency filing is part of an ongoing federal lawsuit. In the filing, one expert, Dr. Susi U. Vassallo, cites evidence the children are subjected to extreme heat in the cells, which lack windows and air conditioning. The heat index in Angola has been over 88 degrees every day since May 21 — a temperature that can cause serious harm to the children’s health, Vassallo said.
The 140-year-old prison is a maximum security adult correctional facility that’s on 8,000 acres of land that once served as a slave plantation and was named after a country in Africa from which many Africans were kidnapped.
The prison, like most facilities built for the incarceration system, wasn’t established with the intention to keep incarcerated people comfortable.
Since last year, a revolving door of nearly 80 young people, mostly Black, were transferred from Bridge City Center for Youth to Angola as a new juvenile facility was scheduled to open this spring. Gregg says that the ACLU is not aware of any of its clients being hospitalized or treated for excessive heat exposure.
But plans to open the new youth facility have been rescheduled for later this fall. The transfer to Angola happened after six youths escaped Bridge City last summer and were recaptured. It was the fourth security breach that year. An investigation was launched by the Office of Juvenile Justice that revealed that in addition to staffing issues, the center fell into “major disrepair,” and officials reasoned that transferring the kids to “safer housing” was necessary, according to an announcement from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The young people at Angola, who were not convicted of a crime but determined to be delinquent in a civil proceeding, are being held in the prison’s former death row unit.
Nearly 300 young people are within the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice system, and they are all counted in the class-action lawsuit since there isn’t a system in place to determine who gets transferred. Gregg says that the state has couched its reasoning for placing the incarcerated youth in Angola within a narrative that “they are the worst of the worst.” In reality, with each escape, the youths exposed the failures within the juvenile justice system where there’s a regular occurrence of limited staffing as well as children being abused, Gregg said.
About 40% of the incarcerated youth in Louisiana entered the juvenile justice system with mental disabilities such as ADHD that require medications that can be exacerbated by certain weather conditions, she added.
Capital B reached out to the governor’s office, the Office of Juvenile Justice, and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for comment. The department of public safety and corrections referred questions to the Office of Juvenile Justice, which denied that the West Feliciana Center for Youth at Angola aren’t air conditioned.
A spokeswoman said in an emailed statement to Capital B that she “believes that the youth at the Center are receiving the care they need with very specific and targeted treatments in accordance with the transitional treatment unit guidelines to ensure that both the youth and staff are safe.”
The Justice Department filed a “statement of interest of the United States” on July 28 that includes research and case law that the judge should be aware of when it comes to “the serious and irreparable harms that youth may experience when subjected to the alleged conditions of confinement.”
Unsafe heat conditions
“When I first arrived, I was locked alone in my cell and not let out except to shower for three days,” wrote a 16-year-old incarcerated boy listed under the pseudonym “Daniel D.” in a letter of support for a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU last summer against Edwards.
The teen said he has been “frustrated” being at Angola for the third time since October 2022 as he doesn’t receive substance abuse treatment, education, and visits from and calls to family as he would at other youth facilities. “There’s no air conditioning in my block. It is extremely hot and the fans don’t always work. Sometimes the power goes out and there are no fans,” he wrote.
“I would not dare to keep my dog in these conditions for fear of my dog dying,” Vassallo wrote in court documents submitted last week. The state’s animal cruelty laws wouldn’t support these actions against the incarcerated young people, and the current conditions violate Louisiana laws that require air conditioning in juvenile facilities.
“The science is clear that prolonged exposure to high heat indices places people — including younger and healthier people — at risk of death or permanent physical injury. People are also at risk of engaging in acts of self-harm when trapped in these conditions, powerless to cool themselves off,” Vassallo wrote.
A 17-year-old boy listed under the pseudonym “Charles C.” says he was also placed in solitary confinement for the first 72 hours at Angola and is concerned about his mental health because he’s “forced” to stay in a regular jail cell for several hours a day.
“My cell is incredibly small and I have no room to move. I can’t drink the water out of the faucet because it has a color, tastes bad, and would make me sick,” he wrote. “Before I came here, staff always threatened me that if I was bad I would be sent here. I want to get out of here.”
Advocates against Edwards’ decision to move the teenagers said it was “immoral and impractical.” And a former Office of Juvenile Justice official said that moving the youth from juvenile facilities to the state prison is “abhorrent” and “the worst juvenile justice policy decision probably ever made in modern time,” according to the lawsuit.
This isn’t the first time a judge visited Angola after allegations of unsafe heat conditions.
Ten years ago, three death row inmates sued the prison, claiming that they were forced to live in extreme heating conditions similar to those the incarcerated juveniles are experiencing. A federal appellate panel suggested allowing air conditioning from areas where prison guards are stationed to flow into the death row unit. Prison officials pushed back on the idea and offered extra cold showers and more fans.
Last year, state lawmakers gave the prison system $2.8 million to study what it would cost to install air conditioning across its facilities, but advocates say not enough has been done to improve conditions. A prison official told nola.com earlier this month that Angola recently added air conditioning to four living areas. The Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women is the only one of the state’s prisons that is fully air-conditioned.
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