Moving two-dozen incarcerated teenagers to the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola could have long-term consequences for the youths’ psychological wellbeing, a doctor who specializes in juvenile mental health told a federal judge Tuesday.
“If you’re taking already stressed-out kids and placing them in an even more stressful environment, the reaction isn’t going to be what the state is hoping for,” said Dr. Monica Stevens, a psychiatrist and professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Stevens’ remarks came in the first day of hearings over a lawsuit filed last month in the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana by an array of civil rights attorneys. It seeks to block state officials’ unusual plan to relocate some teenagers from the embattled Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish to the grounds of the state penitentiary.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has called the plan a last-ditch solution to increasingly dire conditions within the state-run Bridge City facility, which has been plagued by violence and escapes in recent months. State officials have said the youths will be moved on or after Sept. 15.
In recent weeks, the move attracted anger from a swath of youth advocates, legal experts and former justice officials. Their concerns range from the legal — federal law bars youths from being incarcerated within sight or sound of adults, for instance — to the psychological: Some fear that Angola’s notoriety could cause the prison to be viewed as a badge of honor among teens who are moved there.
When they arrive at Angola, youths from the New Orleans-area facility will be housed inside an old building that once held the penitentiary’s death row. The building near the entrance to the sprawling penal colony, the nation’s biggest maximum-security prison named for a former slave plantation that once operated there, has also seen use as a reception center over the years. It most recently housed adult female inmates relocated after the state women’s prison was damaged in the 2016 flood.
A cohort of civil rights lawyers—including Ron Haley of Haley and Associates and David Utter of the Claiborne firm—filed the lawsuit on behalf of one teenage boy slated to be part of the move. The lawsuit requests class action status, meaning it asks to represent others in a similar position to the stated plaintiff.
In court Tuesday, Stevens said she was finding it hard to draw any comparisons between the plan and past developments in the world of youth justice.
“It’s unprecedented,” she said.
The youth plaintiff has exhibited deepening stress and signs of mental health crisis since officials announced the plan, said Stevens, who tested at the request of the civil rights lawyers as an expert witness in child psychology. She described doing an interview with the teenager via Zoom in the days before the hearing. The boy also tested in court Tuesday; Judge Shelly Dick cleared the courtroom during his testimony to protect his identity as a minor.
He has had nightmares, expressed anxiety about being assaulted at Angola and has even pulled out his own hair — something exceedingly rare for youths in the boy’s demographics, Stevens said.
The plan’s lack of detail about programming like mental health care and outdoor recreation are so concerning that, as a state-mandated reporter of youth crises, Stevens said she might be compelled to report the plan to the state if she saw similar conditions replicated elsewhere.
“I don’t think I fully realized how concerned I’d be, knowing what I know now, at the start of this,” she said. “I couldn’t ethically sign off on this. In fact, I might have to report it.”
Advocates have been particularly concerned about healthcare because of fears the youth could come into contact with adult inmates in the prison’s infirmary. Dr. Denise Dandridge, OJJ’s director of medical services, gave testimony Tuesday with new details about the healthcare plan, saying medical services would be available to the youths within the building where they will be housed, keeping them away from adult inmates.
The building will be serviced by Wellpath, a medical contractor that operates in most OJJ facilities, Dandridge said. There will be a physician available in-person or on call for the facility for a period of eight hours weekly, she said. Mental health counselors will be present Monday through Friday and on call on the weekends.
But many of those details have yet to reach the public. Much of the teen plaintiff’s anxiety stemmed from a lack of understanding about what the plan actually entails, according to Stevens.
Addressing attorneys representing Edwards and the Office of Juvenile Justice on Tuesday, Dick reprimanded the lawyers for failing to give the incarcerated youths enough information about that plan.
“Counsel, he’s 17 years old, and he’s in the custody of your client,” Dick told attorney Lem E. Montgomery, of Butler Snow, a Jackson, Mississippi-based firm representing state officials in the lawsuit.
“Somebody should have explained it to him,” Dick said.