NEW ORLEANS (CN) — The American Bar Association can show its disapproval of Louisiana sending children to Angola prison by not doing business in the state, a panelist told the lawyers' organization Thursday afternoon.
“ABA can say, ‘We came to Louisiana, and we spent our money, and we learned enough to know we don’t agree with what you’re doing, and we’re not coming back,’” Kristen Rome, co-executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, suggested during the ABA panel in a French Quarter Marriott.
Louisiana State Penitentiary – also known as Angola Prison after the plantation it replaced – is the largest maximum-security adult prison in the U.S., with over 6,000 inmates.
Last spring, following a spate of riots, runaways, heinous violence, and other issues at a juvenile detention facility, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced that roughly 25 children in the facility, including some as young as 12, would “temporarily” be moved to Angola.
Despite public outrage and a class action lawsuit filed in August asserting 14th Amendment violations, the state went ahead with its plan and eight kids as young as 14 were transferred to Angola and put in a cell block that once held people awaiting the death penalty.
“The prospect of putting a teenager to bed at night in a locked cell behind razor wire surrounded by swamps at Angola is disturbing,” Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick of the Middle District of Louisiana conceded in a 64-page decision in September declaring the governor could go forward with his plan.
Dick, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote that “placing any child in a maximum-security facility designed for adults is unreasonably psychologically harmful to children." Still, she concluded the “balance of harms weighs against granting” plaintiffs’ requested injunction.
The shift into treating children like adult criminals dates back to the Clinton administration, when states nationwide began removing kids from juvenile courts based on a popular theory that a small but significant and growing population of kids were willing to commit violent crimes. This led to a drastic change in legislation around youth rehabilitation and a spike in life without parole sentences for minors, especially for Black and brown children who were more likely to be deemed “super-predators."
Data since then points to the opposite being true: violent crimes committed by kids are on the decline and only 7% of youths arrested in 2020 had committed a violent crime.
Rome, the panelist who called on the ABA to put pressure on Louisiana, said “the science actually tells us that when children are given what they need – even when they’ve committed a grave offense – then they have the ability to change.”
Still, spending on schooling nationwide is just roughly 10% of what is spent on youth incarceration. Louisiana is no exception, spending $11,000 per school child annually and $100,000 annually per detained youth.
“Decades of research demonstrates the serious harm youth experience when they are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons,” according to the class action filed in August. “Youth in adult facilities are more likely to commit suicide, more likely to suffer from sexual assault and trauma, and more likely to experience exacerbated mental health challenges."
Dick’s determination that the state can place kids in Angola took into consideration some of their serious offenses, including damage to physical property, “with some dorms having been destroyed to the point of being uninhabitable,” the judge wrote. The ruling also quoted reports of increasing violence in youth detention centers, including one teen who escaped to fatally shoot a driver while jacking his car.
“This is a really sad time in the State of Louisiana,” Ernestine Gray, a retired New Orleans juvenile judge and the 2022 recipient of the ABA’s Mark Hardin Award for Child Welfare Legal Scholarship and Systems Change, said during Thursday’s panel. “It is fair to say that no one – no part of the community, no specific person, is without some of the blame.”
Gray noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s adherence to emerging science on youth brain development in recent years and its call for updating how juvenile justice is handled, but she said rampant underlying racism is still a big issue.
“Racism still drives a lot of what we do in this country. If we want to change that, then we have to change something,” Gray said.
Rome agreed with Gray.
“These are children. It doesn’t matter what they have done – this is someone’s child," she said.
She underscored that juvenile facilities by law are expected to mirror a home and said that if a child was constantly running away from home, beating other members of the home and describing violent acts, the state would surely investigate the home.
Rome said the first escape from a juvenile facility in Louisiana happened last March. At the time, an administrator of the facility “is on the news and says ‘this is our fault. We are understaffed and we don’t have proper training.’”
But then, she said, very soon after, the conversation changed. It became, “’These children are terrible.’”
Echoing other panel members, Rome said "an idle mind is the devil’s workshop’” and noted than an audit of one of the main youth facilities found that kids there do school for one hour a day and spend the rest of the day lying around and watching TV.
“To me, this looks intentional,” Rome said. “These are children, they think no one cares about. And to be honest, far too few people care about them.”
Gray said the system has failed the kids, but the kids are the ones paying for it. Rome agreed.
“There’s a lot of talk about John Bel Edwards allowed this, John Bel Edwards allowed that. But we allowed it," Rome said. "I mean people living in Louisiana and people living without. We allow the state to take our children and literally throw them away.”
She added, “What are we saying to them? What are we creating in them? And then, knowing that they are coming back into our communities – what are our intentions here?”
Rome and Gray were joined on the panel by were Paulette Brown, founder of Mindset Power LLC, and Gina Womack, co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children.
The panel was moderated by Carla Laroche, associate clinical professor and director of the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Clinic at Washington and Lee University School of Law.
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