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Advocates speak out against Louisiana’s kids sent to Angola Prison

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Advocates speak out against Louisiana's kids sent to Angola Prison
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Last week, the state of Louisiana confirmed that it transferred the first group of eight children in juvenile custody to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison.

The eight young people sent to the Angola site also came from Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and an old jail in St. Martinville that the state converted into a youth lockup in 2021.

Louisiana Illuminator reported a violent teen group escape from the Bridge City Center for Youth in June, and one month later, according to State Police, the sixth and final escapee from the Bridge City Center carjacked and shot a 59-year-old man, leaving him in critical condition.

Gov. John Bel Edwards soon announced that some young people would be moved into an empty building that once housed death row inmates at Angola.

Not only are the children in the prison, but they are housed in what was formerly death row.

The state’s decision was made after an arduous legal battle led by criminal justice reform advocates and legal experts, who contested the relocation to Angola as a violation of the children’s constitutional rights and physical safety.

The Black Wall Street Times spoke with Gina Womack, executive director and co-founder of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Youth. “It was totally a shock and out of the blue,” says Womack.

She continued, “We passed juvenile justice reform in 2003 which transformed our power system, how we coordinate services, and restorative justice. Due to changing of the guard in so many places, a lot of the reforms were never fully implemented. As a result, over time they’ve moved away from restorative practices to being more punitive.”

“When people say ‘these are at-risk kids’ it’s clear that the system put our children at-risk by denying them opportunity to thrive,” says Womack.

In 2021, Womack says some young people in Louisiana residential facilities “were sleeping on the floor, weren’t being fed or allowed to shower, or even see their families.” It came to light in a ProPublica investigation, co-reported with The Marshall Project and NBC News, which revealed the deplorable conditions Louisiana teenagers endured at a secret, high-security facility known as the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville.

“And that was last year, so we had been working to fix those issues and knew things were wrong but to have this happen was the biggest shock of all. I just couldn’t imagine that the Governor – our Democratic governor –  would think that’s the best solution. I’m still in shock,” says Womack.

Through stunned by the Governor’s decision, Womack remains hopeful in her community to right the wrong. She continued, “Even in this situation that’s so horrific, it’s really beautiful sight to see parents on the forefront stepping up for their young people. It has also galvanized people who aren’t normally allies. I wish this had never happened, but I think eventually it will give us more power because organizationally, we’ve been on the forefront for full implementation of the original 2003 reform, and folks were happy to abandon it [at the time]. Now they see how necessary the reforms were and are.”

“When the public welfare and education system fails, the criminal justice system works,” says Womack.

Womack explains a large part of the problem is that Louisiana kids can be suspended from school for “willful disobedience,” a subjective label she fears is consistently weaponized against Black children. “Our work now is about implementation so our families and youth understand how these laws are impacting them. They know what their rights are and feel supported by a system of peers that can hold policymakers and institutions accountable.”

During the 2018-19 school year, out-of-school suspensions totaled 54,020 students, according to state figures. Of that total, 37,893 suspensions involved Black students and 16,127 were White students.

According to The Advocate, that translates into more than 30,000 days and 180,000 hours of missed instruction, according to the state. In 2017-18, suspensions totaled 56,302 students, including 40,383 Black students and 15,919 White students.

Womack states Louisiana created a loophole in housing the kids housed in the adult maximum security prison. “They just renamed the facility, they’re not supposed to be in an adult facility with other adults around so they’ve created a façade. And not only is this a prison, this is also a former death row facility. We know they’re going to traumatize our young people and it won’t be good for society at all. If we’re looking for public safety, this is not it.”

Regarding the legalities of transferring children to an adult facility, The Black Wall Street Times spoke with David Utter of Fair Fight Initiative. Utter, an attorney, says this is move – though controversial – is not new.

“America has been doing this for some time,” says Utter. “In spite of research and data on adolescent development and that this is more likely to happen to Black kids, the fact that police tend to view Black children as older than they are, the roots in racism and harm that it does to kids to put them in an adult prison is something we’ve known about for decades and most places have curtailed that from happening. It makes the Governor’s decision all the more confounding.”

He follows up, “I think it’s a classic knee jerk response to public safety – the escape, the car jacking, and crime. The community says ‘close this facility, get these kids out of our neighborhoods,’ and a week later, the Governor has a press conference to say that this is his solution.”

While understanding the backstory behind the Governor’s actions, Utter says his execution lacks awareness. “He’s tone death, the inability to understand the history of that place when 83% of the children in Louisiana juvenile system are Black and they only make up 30% of the population.”

“You know this is going to disproportionately young Black children and it’s astonishing the lack of perspective the Governor has on this,” says Utter.

Asked how this decision may impact other kids in Louisiana’s youth facilities, Utter explains, “He (Governor) starts off by saying he’s only going to use the children from Bridge City but the testimony at trial, in front of Judge Shelly Dick, made it clear that this is available for every young person in Louisiana’s juvenile system. They’re not limiting it to any one facility or any group of kids. The facility that they’re placing them in has 100 beds available. They keep saying this is going to be a limited number of kids for a limited number of time, but there was no limitations in the policy that they showed the court at trial.”

In response to the Governor’s move, Utter says, “I’m working with lawyers from the ACLU National Prison project, local Louisiana lawyers, and our Fair Fight Initiative, we filed a lawsuit to stop the transfer of kids to Angola. Judge Dick denied our request for a preliminary injunction and now we’re proceeding with the lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction. We’re fighting to visit the eight children in Angola, the pictures from our first visit show the conditions, they have a dirt basketball court, no medical facilities, no examination tables, it was in shambles.”

“This is a juvenile system where the adults have continually failed the children,” says Utter.

“We’re going to continue with the litigation, if – God forbid – a child gets hurt or hurts themselves in the facility, we will definitely explore legal options for holding the state accountability,” confirms Utter.

He furthers, “The state swore and told Judge Dick that family visitation would be permitted and they swore families could have contact visits, but we have yet to verify that. The parents we’ve talked to are terrified. Everybody in Louisiana knows what ‘Angola’ means. They know that it stands for one of the harshest and largest prisons in the country. It’s a maximum security place for only the worst of criminals. The families of the kids know that about Angola and they’re justly terrified of what might happen to their sons.”

Utter asks supporters, “We urge people to go ‘NoKidsInAngola.’ There’s a petition there to sign, and directions on calling and emailing the Governor’s office.”

The Black Wall Street Times has reached out to Governor Edward’s office, however, at the time of this article’s publication, no communication has been returned.

1 comment

Hypercoyote October 29, 2022 - 10:09 am

I see two issues here. One is the decrepit state of the prison systems in the south and the reform that needs to happen there. But two is that if you carjack and shoot someone, you have pretty much lost leniency regardless of what got you there.

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