Special to the Vanguard
Baton Rouge, LA – After more than a year of national and local advocacy, public outrage and an ongoing federal lawsuit, the state of Louisiana has finally relented and moved children out of the nation’s largest adult maximum security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.
“This is a victory for the children and their families,” said David Utter, executive director of Fair Fight Initiative and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “The state of Louisiana has subjected these children to harm that no one should have to endure. We are grateful to all the people in Louisiana and across the nation who have been in solidarity with Louisiana’s children — speaking out, raising awareness, signing petitions and protesting on their behalf. All these efforts show our clients how much we believe in their futures.”
Since October 2022, 70-80 children, almost all Black boys, have been housed in the former death row of Angola, where they were subjected to abusive conditions, including solitary confinement for days—sometimes weeks—at a time, excessive force, and the routine use of handcuffs, restraints, and chemical agents.
State officials deprived these children of their right to an education and rehabilitative services, and deprived them of their right to see their family members.
Last week, a federal court judge found that the state had broken virtually all its promises about how it would treat youth in Angola, and subjected the children to conditions of confinement that constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” The judge ordered the state to remove the children from Angola.
“This has been an ugly chapter in Angola’s already ugly history as a monument to slavery and white supremacy,” said Tammie Gregg, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “We hope this ordeal is finally over for our clients, and no child will ever be sent back to Angola. We are outraged any child had to suffer these abuses at all. The state never had to take this path.”
The state is appealing the judge’s order—continuing to fight for the ability to hold children in conditions that violate their constitutional rights.
On Friday, without any notice to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the Office of Juvenile Justice announced it had moved the children from Angola to what appears to be an adult detention facility which also houses youth in Jackson Parish.
In July 2022, Governor John Bel Edwards announced a plan to move children in juvenile justice custody to the former death row of Angola.
Angola’s transformation from slave plantation to a prison camp for mostly Black men conscripted under the convict leasing system to nation’s largest maximum-security adult prison underlines its legacy of white supremacy and mass incarceration.
Attorneys with the ACLU and local counsel filed a federal lawsuit in August 2022, and sought an emergency motion to stop the Governor’s plan from moving forward. The lawsuit revealed information about the details of the state’s plan, including the fact that any child in OJJ custody could be transferred to Angola.
After an emergency hearing in September 2022, a federal judge allowed the state to move forward with its plan, citing assurances the state made under oath that the site would be closed by spring 2023 and would meet legal requirements.
In October 2022, the Office of Juvenile Justice moved the first group of children to Angola, without notice to families or the children’s lawyers. Since that time, children have been reporting mistreatment and abusive conditions in declarations made to their attorneys.
In July 2023, lawyers for the children filed another emergency motion, seeking to remove them from Angola, given evidence of solitary confinement, restraints, and excessive heat exposure.
After seven days of testimony and thousands of pages of evidence during a hearing in August 2023, the judge ruled last week that the state had violated their promises, violated the children’s constitutional rights and the children must be removed from the Angola site.
“We are pleased with the state’s decision to move the children housed in Angola after a year of devastating effects,” said Nora Ahmed, legal director, ACLU of Louisiana. “Louisiana can and must do better to provide the rehabilitation, education, and treatment services they are legally required to, and end the practice of holding children in adult facilities once and for all.”
Susan Meyers, senior staff attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center added, “Louisiana has one of the most punitive youth justice systems in the country. The decision to hold children in the notorious Angola Prison exemplifies that.”
However, Meyers warned, “While the judge’s order seeks to remove children from unprecedented conditions, the state plans to appeal the ruling and select yet another adult facility to hold children, repeating its shameful history. We will continue our fight to end this inhumane practice and ensure all children, especially Black and Brown children, are treated with dignity and given an opportunity to succeed.”