NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Gina Womack, the Executive Director of Family and Friends of Louisiana Incarcerated Children, held an emergency virtual town hall meeting.
“Our mission is to protect all of the young people who are at risk or in the juvenile justice system,” Womack said.
Parents and child advocates came together this week to make a plea to the Governor and the Office of Juvenile Justice or OJJ to release non-violent and medically fragile youth inmates.
It’s a plea, Womack says they’ve made now for more than a month, but their requests have gone unanswered.
“The families were really concerned. Young people were concerned, so we quickly put together a town hall,” Womack said.
Womack says safety concerns for the youth inmates are top priority, and amid the COVID -19 pandemic, parents worry about their children’s health.
“Life has been very stressful for me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for the youth who are not receiving their normal routines, school, counselors and weekly phone calls,” mother Nicole Hingle said.
“I mean, no matter where you look, they’re saying how the virus is more prone to environments where people are housed together,” mother Latoyia Porter said.
So far, 28 inmates in 4 different Louisiana O.J.J. facilities tested positive for COVID 19.
27 of them are considered recovered.
The numbers are higher among O.J.J. employees. So far, 35 staff members tested positive and 9 are considered recovered.
“Their children are sitting in a place that puts them at a high risk,” Womack said.
The Office of Juvenile Justice tells FOX 8, it’s following CDC guidelines, limiting the number of visitors, contractors and deliveries to it’s secure care facilities and working closely with medical providers.
Parents and advocates are also concerned about violence inside the O.J.J. facilities. The Jefferson Parish Swat team showed up at the Bridge City Center for Youth last week to bring order inside the facility.
“He said that there had been a huge riot at the facility that there were plenty of police officers and Swat team there,” Hingle said.
“He gave me a call and he said they pepper-sprayed me and he was really upset,” Porter said.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office says youth inmates kicked dormitory doors down, destroyed property and began fist fighting.
A guard trying to intervene got hurt, and EMS brought her to the hospital.
At some point, during the alleged riot, Latoyia Porter says a Juvenile Parole and Probation Officer pepper-sprayed her son, 19-year-old Trayjon Simmons.
“He called me and said he got pepper-sprayed. His skin was burning and he was having trouble breathing,” Porter said.
The Office of Juvenile Justice told FOX 8, they’re using Parole and Probation officers at Bridge City and other facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a huge concern that whoever they’re bringing into the facilities do not have the adequate training to work with young people inside a facility,” Womack said.
In a separate incident, 11 youth inmates escaped from the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe on April 9th. Law enforcement tracked down 10 of them, and one is still on the loose.
“So, it’s an extremely chaotic situation and without clear and straight answers from people who are put in charge to care for the children, it’s not a good situation,” Womack said.
“I know that there are adult facilities all over the country that are releasing individuals and my thought is why aren’t we doing the same thing for our young people in our state,” Porter said.
In the adult jail system, the state Parole Board makes the decision to release an inmate, but in the juvenile system, O.J.J. tells FOX 8, releasing a juvenile is solely up to the courts.
Womack, though, says she wants the Governor and other state leaders to step up and intervene.
“We’re working with families and other advocates to figure out what other opportunities or means or strategies we can use to put pressure on the Governor’s Office,” Womack said.