When youths held at Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish learned that state officials planned to move some of their cohort to Louisiana State Penitentiary, their attorneys reported the teens started to panic.
Youths began to call both the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights and their parents to assure their families they hadn't been moved yet. Some asked their loved ones to find a way to halt their transfer to the notorious adult prison in West Feliciana Parish, according to the center's executive director.
Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of LCCR, said relatives even set up protocols where teens would call every day at the same time to inform their fearful mothers they were still at the youth facility. Staff assured other anxious youths that they weren't going to be moved because "you're one of the good ones," he said.
"We can already see how this plan is meant to work," Clark-Rizzio said. "Not only will some children live at Angola, but all of the children will live under the threat of being moved to Angola prison. And this seems to be part of the design."
Clark-Rizzio's comments came Monday afternoon at the Press Club of Baton Rouge, where he criticized the Office of Juvenile Justice's plan.
The proposal, announced by Gov. John Bel Edwards this summer amid a series of violent incidents and escapes at the Bridge City facility, has been put on hold until a federal judge reaches a decision in a lawsuit challenging the plan. A decision is expected by Friday.
An OJJ spokesperson declined to comment on Clark-Rizzio's comments or the issue due to the pending litigation.
Over the past several months, OJJ officials have said the Angola plan emerged as the best option to address ongoing problems at Bridge City. The increasing number of escapes troubled staff and those who live nearby.
While Clark-Rizzio acknowledged the concerns about public safety in the wake of repeated breakouts at Bridge City, and a carjacking that left one person critically injured, he said the state's response to the rise in certain crimes committed by juveniles isn't working.
State leaders have pushed "harsh policies," he said, such as seeking to lock teens up in adult prisons and prosecuting more youths as adults. The Angola plan, he argued, is "doubling down on failed approaches."
Moving youths to Angola would lead to "children … enduring more violence and probably [make] them more willing to inflict violence at the end of the day," Clark-Rizzio said. A doctor specializing in juvenile mental health testified at a hearing over the Angola plan that the move could have long-term consequences for the youths’ psychological wellbeing.
Clark-Rizzio argued the state should focus on rehabilitation.
Federal guidelines dictate minors must be kept out of sight and sound of adult inmates. Clark-Rizzio said that would be difficult at Angola because inmates do much of the work throughout the campus.