Alex A. v. Edwards
What's at Stake
The ACLU National Prison Project and partner civil rights attorneys filed a federal class-action lawsuit to prevent the transfer of children in the custody of Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola Prison.
On July 19, 2022, Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards announced a shocking plan to move youth in the custody of the Office of Juvenile Justice (“OJJ”) to the former death row building at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola Prison. Angola is the notorious maximum-security prison for adults and is the largest maximum-security prison in the country. The site is a former slave plantation that was converted to a prison during the Civil War. Children involved in juvenile delinquency proceedings – who have not been convicted of crimes – have never before been incarcerated on the grounds of an adult prison. The young people targeted to be moved to Angola and their families are fighting back. The ACLU National Prison Project and partner civil rights attorneys quickly filed a federal class-action lawsuit to prevent these transfers.
As it is now, the Angola prison does not meet constitutional standards for health care for the 5,000 adults who are currently incarcerated there. Housing children on the same grounds is unconstitutional and dangerous. By moving youth to Angola – even in a separate building from adults – the state violated its duty to provide conditions of reasonable health and safety and rehabilitative services to children in its custody, and violated the right to educational and related services for children with disabilities.
Research shows that youth in adult facilities are more likely to commit suicide, suffer from sexual assault and experience exacerbated mental health challenges.
Louisiana’s failure to address staffing and operational deficiencies in its existing juvenile justice system led to the problems the system is experiencing now. These issues were not remedied by a wrong-headed and expensive plan to send children to Angola (and house them in the facility’s former death row). Juvenile delinquency adjudications are civil, not criminal, findings. The Louisiana Constitution explicitly recognizes that children in OJJ custody are confined solely for the purpose of receiving rehabilitation and individual treatment and may not be punished. But the state’s use of Angola is clearly punishment. As a national juvenile justice expert testified at the September 2022 preliminary injunction hearing, everything about the Angola site – from its high fences, razor wire, guard towers, and the floor-to-ceiling barred single cells in which children will be locked up — “screams prison” to the youth and their families. Photos of the Angola site where youth in OJJ custody would be held are linked here.
Plaintiffs’ Emergency Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to prevent the state from sending kids to Angola was denied by the court on September 23, 2022, following a three-day hearing in Baton Rouge. While the court’s ruling acknowledged that the children placed at Angola would suffer a serious risk of psychological harm, the judge was persuaded by OJJ’s promises that the facility would be safe, would provide education and all other required services, and would only be used until the spring of 2023. The State broke every one of its promises and was still sending children to Angola a year later. In total, at least 70-80 children endured Angola – almost all are Black and some were as young as 14. The youth, now part of a certified class, asked the court again in July 2023 for an injunction, and during a seven-day trial in August 2023, proved that they had been subjected to what the federal judge called conditions of confinement that were “cruel and unusual punishment.” The state had subjected the children at Angola to abusive conditions, including solitary confinement for days and sometimes weeks at a time, excessive force, denial of education, broken air conditioning, and the routine use of handcuffs, shackles, and chemical agents (mace). On September 8, 2023, the court ordered the state to transfer all children out of Angola within a week and to cease using the facility to detain children in delinquency cases.
The state appealed the preliminary injunction but the order remained in place. On December 19, 2023, a unanimous panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the State’s appeal because it was moot. The injunction was time-limited under the Prison Litigation Reform Act and it had expired. The dismissal returns the focus to the district court, where the certified class of children adjudicated delinquent (in civil proceedings) who are in Louisiana’s custody are seeking a permanent order barring the State from transferring them to Angola or to any other adult jail or prison. We continue the struggle, along with actively engaged community partners, to ensure that Louisiana has a juvenile system where most children receive rehabilitative services in their communities instead of being locked up.