(The Center Square) — A federal judge denied a request to halt plans to transfer violent, troubled youth to Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary, arguing "the untenable must yield to the intolerable."
U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ruled against an adolescent inmate and youth justice advocates who sued to block Louisiana’s plans to move troubled teens in the state’s juvenile justice system to the nation’s largest maximum security prison.
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced plans in July to temporarily move about two dozen youth offenders to the facility from the Bridge City Center for Youth and other juvenile prisons after numerous escapes, riots and attacks on staff in recent years.
The youth offenders are expected to be housed at a former death row building on Angola’s grounds that’s separate from the adult population, but advocacy groups and former justice officials balked at the plan, alleging the move would increase the risk of suicides and would not provide the necessary education and medical care.
Federal officials also penned a letter to the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice in July warning the move could put Louisiana at risk of losing federal funds for youth programs.
Dick acknowledged that housing the troubled youth in single cells designed for adults is not ideal, but found that protecting the public and incarcerated minors from their violent peers was a more pressing concern.
"The prospect of putting a teenager to bed at night in a locked cell behind razor wire surrounded by swamps at Angola is disturbing," she wrote. "Some of the children in OJJ’s care are so traumatized and emotionally and psychologically disturbed that OJJ is virtually unable to provide a secure care environment.
"While locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable," Dick wrote. "The untenable must yield to the intolerable."
The ruling means eight youths could be transferred to Angola as soon as this week, Louisiana Illuminator reports.
"The Court is mindful that the specter of the prison surroundings alone will likely cause psychological trauma and harm. However, the public interest and the balance of harms require OJJ be afforded the latitude to carry out its rehabilitative mission for the benefit of all youth in its care," the ruling read.
Dick said she has faith state officials will comply with federal laws that require separation of incarcerated adults from youths. State officials noted the building planned to house youth offenders is more than a mile from the adult population.
William Sommers, deputy secretary overseeing the OJJ, testified that moving violent youth to Angola will allow officials to better serve those who remain at the Bridge City Center and other youth prisons.
"You cannot do therapy if a fraction of youth are disrupting everything," he said, according to the Illuminator.
The plan calls for eventually moving up to 30 youth to Angola, including offenders as young as 10 years old, officials testified.