The feds are absolutely right: Putting a juvenile prison on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is surely “problematic.”
Whether it is a violation of federal law or not is a question that officials are debating now. What is not at all clear in the immediate term, though, is whether there’s an alternative to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ response to the troubles at Louisiana’s juvenile justice facilities.
They’re supposed to be campus-like settings where juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated, educated and set on a better path. This is a seriously difficult challenge for each and every young man, as most of the offenders are.
Other states have problems with juvenile justice but they manage to deal with them without taking over the old Death Row building as a putatively isolated and supposedly temporary solution to escapes and outright riots at the existing juvie sites. The federal officials now looking over the shoulders of the Louisiana officials are registering concerns that everybody outside officialdom had with the Angola plan from the get-go.
Maybe there won’t be any violation of the federal restrictions that require juveniles to be housed out of sight of adult prisoners — although the remarkably self-contained little city of Angola is always going to have inmates on the grounds.
And maybe the Angola facility will be temporary, as promised, although it’s difficult to look down the road and see when relief will come, as we’re in a crime wave in which many more teenage boys may be involved. Other sites are under renovation or expansion, but that takes time, especially in today’s construction market.
At the Press Club of Baton Rouge, the executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights laid out many problems with the Angola plan. Aaron Clark-Rizzio said Monday that the site can't reasonably be isolated from other inmates, as the feds require for juveniles, and has cells that are built for solitary confinement. The legal issues include Louisiana's strong requirement that juveniles be educated while in the state's custody, and the Angola facility is not at all set up for that.
The site is an example of "doubling down on failed policies" that don't create a system that leads to rehabilitation and a better chance at life, Clark-Rizzio said.
He harshly criticized the fact that the Office of Juvenile Justice apparently plans to use the new site as a stick to deal with behavior problems at other facilities.
"All of the children will live with the threat of being sent to Angola," he observed. That's the threat of retribution, not the promise of rehabilitation.
"Until OJJ prioritizes the health and well-being of the children in its care, these problems will persist," Clark-Rizzio predicted.
We appreciate that the public doesn't want to see any more victims of teenage escapees hospitalized, or worse. The political pressure in Jefferson Parish to transfer inmates from the Bridge City Center for Youth is substantial. We're likely to see the Edwards administration try hard to make it work, but we are skeptical.
Federal authorities are going to be watching this closely; the Angola plan cannot be more than a short-term fix. The overall solution is a recommitment at the highest levels to the principles of rehabilitation in juvenile facilities, pioneered in Missouri years ago.
The Missouri Plan beats the Angola Plan by a mile. It’s not easy and very expensive, but Louisiana doesn’t have any meaningful alternative.
And locking up juveniles at Angola isn't a good look for the state.