This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters here.
A decision to remove minors from a notorious adult maximum-security prison in Louisiana highlights the crisis in one of the harshest juvenile justice systems in the country.
Up until last week, state officials were under a federal judge’s order to move youth housed in a former death-row wing in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The state appealed, and a U.S. Court of Appeals agreed to halt the removal on Sept. 13.
Two days later, under public pressure, the ACLU says state officials removed the youth anyway.
The court rulings were the latest development in an ongoing legal fight over the state’s decision to temporarily house youth — roughly 80 of them since last fall — at a facility once nicknamed “the bloodiest prison in the South.”
Ordinarily, the teens would be at a youth detention center. But Louisiana officials sent them to Angola following repeated violence and escapes from two separate juvenile detention centers last summer.
My colleague Beth Schwartzapfel previously detailed the conditions in one of those youth lockups, finding that teens were shackled, held in solitary confinement for more than 23 hours a day, and received dismal educational services.
State officials have pledged to shift to a more therapeutic approach in youth detention centers, but they have also said that severe staff shortages and budget limitations set by lawmakers make change difficult.
More than a year after young people were moved to Angola, state officials said they planned to extend placement there until this winter. But in a scathing ruling reported by NOLA.com, Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick found that conditions at Angola violate the teens’ constitutional rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
During a site visit, Dick reportedly witnessed minors handcuffed while playing cards and eating meals. She also found officials were not providing proper medical care, and that guards were withholding family visits.
“Virtually every promise that was made was broken,” Dick said from the bench, referring to the state’s past assurances that the teens would be safe and have access to rehabilitation services at the prison.
The problems aren’t unique to Louisiana. Last year, my colleague Jamiles Lartey wrote about the harsh conditions in Baltimore, Illinois, and Texas. In all three states, young people were held in their cells for most of the day.
A year later, it’s the same tune, just in new locations.
In Kentucky, the ACLU has requested a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into a detention center where youth are allegedly held in lockdown “for 24 hours a day without food, mental health treatment, education, or access to religious services.”
Staff in juvenile detention centers across Arkansas are facing allegations that include sexual abuse and improperly isolating youth. “Many courts are furious, parents are angry and hopeless, and a lot of kids have given up. To be honest with you, I don’t blame them,” Arkansas’ Juvenile Ombudsman Brooke Digby wrote in a letter to the private company that oversees the state's juvenile facilities.
In Georgia, several Department of Juvenile Justice employees were recently indicted in connection with a 16-year-old girl’s death, the Dalton Daily Citizen reports. They are accused of child cruelty and depriving the teenager of necessary medical care.
As a reporter covering juvenile justice, I see stories like these almost every month. While they may seem endless, there have also been significant attempts to reform the systems in several states.
As a result, the number of youth detained is the lowest in a decade, according to data from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. And youth arrests for violent crimes are also down.
These efforts are propelled by the growing understanding among experts that young people’s minds are still developing, and with the proper care and treatment, their risk of recidivism can be greatly reduced.
Officials have looked to the “Missouri model” as one way to fundamentally shift how to handle so-called bad kids. Missouri’s own reckoning came after a host of constitutional issues were raised about how it treated the young people in its legal system four decades ago. Officials built a new cultural mindset to care for youths — one focused on a trauma-informed approach, instead of a punitive one.
Mark Stewart, who once ran Missouri’s youth system and now directs the Missouri Youth Services Institute, argued last year that Louisiana should give the model a try. “It provides a more holistic approach that includes structure, support, understanding and empathy in a humane and caring environment,” Stewart wrote.
But as the St. Louis Dispatch reported this summer, the Missouri model itself may be at risk due to staffing shortages and other challenges intensified by the pandemic — including reports of violence and an increase in escapes.