Jim Beam Column: Juvenile Justice Makes the News – American Press
Jim Beam Column: Juvenile Justice Makes the News
Posted 7:23 a.m. on Sunday, October 2, 2022
Youth advocates all seem to agree that sending troubled youth to a Louisiana State Penitentiary facility in Angola is a bad idea. However, a federal district court judge gave the best explanation we’ve heard of why this is being done.
First, some information on why minors are moved. Escapes from the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish caused problems in the community, there were mass riots and rival groups formed within the facility.
Then there was a riot at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe that coincided with an earlier escape from Bridge City. Both incidents caused damage that left parts of both facilities uninhabitable.
Otha “Curtis” Nelson, deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ), said, “We had senators, council members demanding that we leave the (Jefferson Parish) community.”
Bill Sommers, deputy secretary of the OJJ, said plans for a new high security unit materialized in June. “It got to the point where breakouts weren’t good for anyone,” Sommers said. “It was not good for the staff; it was not good for the children; it was not good for the surrounding communities.
Sommers said that after checking possible locations for trouble-causing miners, the Angolan unit emerged as “structurally” the best option. Officials said the medical care and education offered at its other facilities would be available in Angola.
Once at the facility, the youths will live in individual cells with open toilets, sinks and single beds. During the day, they will attend school, have group therapy sessions, and enjoy recreation on a basketball court outside the building. The land is surrounded by a fence adorned with fabric that blocks the view and topped with barbed wire.
The unit will accommodate 24 young people at a time, although it has 101 beds. Nelson said that when they successfully complete the treatment cycle, the youths would be transferred to another juvenile facility.
Nelson’s testimony came during a civil trial in the US District Court for the Intermediate District of Louisiana to determine whether the Angola Plan will harm young people and violate their rights, according to The Advocate which covered youth issues in detail.
Eric Holl, deputy chief of staff for communications for Governor John Bel Edwards, said in a statement, “This transfer of high-priority youth to settlement in Angola is not a permanent solution, but it is the best we have to ensure that we take good care of young people and keep them and our communities safe.
Juvenile advocates said placing the youngsters on the grounds of Angola’s infamous prison – the country’s largest penitentiary – sends the message that they are beyond recovery.
Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, was a major spokesperson against the Angolan plan. “We can already see how this plan is supposed to work,” Clark-Rizzio said. “Not only will some children live in Angola, but all children will live under the threat of being transferred to prison in Angola. And that seems to be part of the design.
OK, what did U.S. District Chief Judge Shelly Dick say in her 64-page ruling? She said the plan is “untenable” and “disturbing,” but does not appear to violate federal law.
“Some of the children in OJJ’s care are so emotionally and psychologically traumatized and disrupted that OJJ is virtually unable to provide a safe environment,” the judge said.
“While locking children in cells overnight in Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these young people pose to themselves and others is intolerable,” she wrote. “The untenable must give way to the intolerable.”
Dick said the level of chaos that has recently emerged inside juvenile facilities due to a small number of young people has created a situation so dire that the agency (OJJ) has had little choice .
“Young people eligible for transfer to BCCY-WF (Angola) pose a demonstrated risk to other youth in the care of the OJJ, OJJ staff, and when they escape, a risk to the public” , wrote Dick. She agrees that this is not the best solution, but it serves the best interests of the public and of all young people served by the OJJ.
Conditions at OJJ existed before Sommers arrived and the problems cannot be solved overnight. However, he and his team are working on solutions.
As we’ve said before, Sommers has compiled an excellent record as head of the Calcasieu Parish Juvenile Justice Services Office. Given the time, resources, and staff OJJ needs, Sommers can do the same job for state-level miners.