Internal document outlining youth program in Angola sparks concern among advocates

An internal Bureau of Juvenile Justice document that outlines a proposed program for incarcerated youth who should be held in a facility within the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola raises concerns among advocates at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. They say this suggests the Angolan facility could be used as a kind of system-wide maximum-security unit to which young people housed in any OJJ facility could be sent, not just those currently being held at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, as statements by Governor John Bel Edwards have suggested.

They also say that even before the move took place, the document indicates that OJJ is already preparing for the facility in Angola to be understaffed.

The plan to move the children to a former death row housing unit in Angola was touted by Edwards last month as a temporary solution to ongoing problems – including escapes and several violent incidents – in Bridge City. Edwards said the youths would be housed more than a mile from any camp that holds incarcerated adults.

But the plan has been heavily criticized by civil rights advocates who say that despite public assurances from the state, it will be impossible to separate young people from adult prisoners in Angola and, due to the lack of details of the state, they are concerned that young people are not getting an adequate education or curriculum at the state prison.

Last week, attorneys representing a current inmate in Bridge City filed a proposed class action lawsuit to try to stop the transfers. And on Tuesday, US District Court Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge ordered that the state cannot move any young people to Angola until September 15, pending ongoing litigation.

She also ordered that by the end of Wednesday, OJJ must “disclose the plan for the proposed transfer and detention of minors currently being detained” in Bridge City.

At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, attorney Ronald Haley lamented the lack of information available so far, saying the governor’s office did not respond to a public records request for a plan. complete.

“What’s the plan? How are you going to make sure that those kids who are transferred to Angola’s needs will be met? The educational needs, their sociological needs, their mentorship, their education — everything,” Haley said. “And what we have, it’s crickets. We haven’t had anything at all.”

But an internal draft “summary of the programme” obtained by The Lens gives a tentative outline of what the OJJ is planning for the Angola facility.

Angola will host the “transitional treatment unit” currently in Saint-Martinville

The program summary suggests the facility will replace OJJ’s “Transitional Treatment Unit,” which is currently located at the Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville. The document describes the TTU as “a maximum detention unit for youth described as violent and highly aggressive” that is “designed to help youth develop the self-regulation, coping and social skills needed to engage safely and successfully with their peers and staff.

The summary contains tracked edits that show the revisions that were made to the original summary of the Acadiana Transitional Treatment Unit program. In the title of the document, “St. Martinville” has been crossed out and replaced with “Bridge City Center for Youth at West Feliciana” – the name the OJJ has given to the facility in Angola.

Saint-Martinville, which was quietly opened last year, has been criticized for holding young people in solitary confinement and failing to provide education.

But the transitional treatment unit in Angola, according to the document, will be based on a “cognitive-behavioral approach focusing on conflict resolution, anger management, aggression reduction and social skills” and will give priority to structured activities rather than “restrictive living”. It requires that children have access to education, religious services and individual counseling at least once a week.

The program outline for St. Martinville also called for children to receive group counseling five times a week, when staffing is optimal. However, this requirement has been removed from the Angola program summary.

Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, called the summary “an ambitious collection of ideas that still lacks a concrete plan,” and said it was “woefully inadequate.”

“They’re just trying to take this document they had for one establishment and piggyback it on another,” Clark-Rizzio said. “But it feels like everything is done on the fly.”

Nicolette Gordon, a spokesperson for OJJ, said in response to questions from The Lens that the program summary is an “internal working document” and that “nothing has been finalized”.

Document suggests any YOG inmate could be eligible for transfer

The program summary also raises questions about who will be eligible to transfer to the Angola facility.

Initially, Edwards said the plan was a “temporary solution” to house about 25 youths currently being held at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish. But the revised program summary for settling in Angola does not require young people being transferred to come from Bridge City. This seems to suggest that a referral can be made from any of the five OJJ establishments.

The document maintains the admission criteria that were used for the St. Martinville Transitional Treatment Unit, which require a young person to have demonstrated certain behavioral issues – such as possessing a weapon, being involved in an escape or having “demonstrates a pattern of assault and battery”. on other young people. A child may then be referred for admission to TTU by a headteacher or other member of staff, who must be approved by a ‘multi-disciplinary team’ before a transfer is initiated.

“That’s how it was first presented,” Aaron Clark-Rizzio said of the stated plan to house only Bridge City inmates in Angola. “This programming summary suggests something very different. That would suggest that not all Bridge City kids would go there. But it also suggests that this is indeed not a temporary thing, but possibly a longer term setup that they are trying to create.

The program summary also retains the language of St. Martinville’s TTU calling it a “short-term program.”

“Under optimal conditions, the duration of the program is four weeks; yet, depending on stabilization, youth may leave the program in less than four weeks or remain in the unit longer than four weeks,” the document states.

Despite this, there is also a newly added section, apparently written for the Angolan establishment, which requires young people to be placed in the program for a minimum of 4 weeks.

Gordon, with OJJ, did not respond to specific questions about who will be transferred to Angola or why the four-week minimum was added.

“The issues being addressed are serious and complex and officials are working diligently to develop a plan that will meet the needs of young people, support them in their rehabilitation and keep them, staff and the community safe,” she said. writing. “This is a work in progress and more details will be released as they are completed.”

Clark-Rizzio said that while the facility will indeed be used to house TTU youngsters from one of the OJJ facilities, it calls into question the original rationale for the plan.

“If the original purpose of this has changed, it undermines the idea that there is a real need for this,” he said.

Staffing issues

The updated document also removed a minimum staffing scheme that required the St. Martinsville program to have a minimum of four staff working at any given time, at least one social services staff member for every six children and three teachers.

The newly annotated document calls for “social service personnel” and regular and special education teachers, but does not specify how many are needed. It also removes the position of “residential therapist”.

“They’ve removed staffing requirements from the actual plan, which suggests they don’t want to be held to staffing ratios, or that they intend to go below those ratios,” said Clark-Rizzio. “Or they intend to find out later.”

The state’s Civil Service Department held job fairs in St. Francisville this month with the specific goal of staffing the Angola Youth Center. Currently, on the OJJ website, there are nine vacant positions in Bridge City, for which new recruits can be “assigned to satellite positions located in West Feliciana or Jefferson Parish”. Openings include a youth facility assistant warden, two food service positions, and several “juvenile justice specialists.”

Clark-Rizzio said he fears the abuse and neglect reported at the St. Martiniville facility could happen again.

“The last time they opened a new facility for kids who were struggling to meet their needs, they actually just put those kids in solitary confinement,” Clark-Rizzio said. “It’s their track record.”

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