Federal judge refuses to block planned transfer of violent youth offenders to Angola

Published: Sep. 24, 2022 at 9:12 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A federal judge on Friday (Sept. 23) refused to block Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to transfer some of Louisiana’s most violent youth offenders to a temporary facility on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick made it clear in a 64-page ruling that she was no great fan of sending young inmates to Angola, even if they would be housed more than a mile away from any adult prisoners and segregated from them at all times. But she concluded there was no better alternative, given the threat posed to other youth housed in Office of Juvenile Justice custody and to the public after numerous escapes from facilities such as the Bridge City Center for Youth.

“The prospect of putting a teenager to bed at night in a locked cell behind razor wire surrounded by swamps at Angola is disturbing,” Dick wrote. “Some of the children in OJJ’s care are so traumatized and emotionally and psychologically disturbed that OJJ is virtually unable to provide a secure care environment.

“While locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm these youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable. The untenable must yield to the intolerable.”

State Sen. Patrick Connick (R-Marrero) hailed the decision.

“Finally, a message has been delivered to a group of juveniles who have done nothing but disrupt our juvenile justice system,” Connick said. “These bad actors will now understand that their harmful actions have real consequences. The judge made the correct ruling.”

Dick’s ruling was in response to a civil class action complaint filed in Baton Rouge on behalf of a juvenile inmate identified as Alex A, a 17-year-old inmate at Bridge City. The suit against Edwards, OJJ deputy secretary Bill Sommers and Department of Public Safety and Corrections secretary James LeBlanc sought a temporary restraining order against the plan and an injunction to block it permanently.

While Dick appeared sympathetic to some of the plaintiff’s arguments and noted that OJJ “is charged with a rehabilitative, not punitive, mission,” she also pointed out “a small handful of youth have wreaked havoc, endangering themselves, other youth, OJJ staff and members of the general public.”

One such victim is 59-year-old New Orleans man Scott Toups. He was dropping off bags of Mardi Gras beads at an Uptown recycling center on July 17, when police say he was shot and critically wounded by two teen carjackers, one of whom escaped from the Bridge City youth lockup earlier that morning.

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Toups has been fighting for his life in intensive care for more than two months. His wife Stacie helped convince Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams to prosecute the accused teens -- 17-year-old escapee Kendell Myles and 16-year-old Kayla Smith -- as adults.

“Whether or not he gets 100 years, 120 years, 50 years, that’s fine with me,” Toups’ wife Stacie said of Myles. “I want him to pay the price. My husband is paying the price. My family is paying the price.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have not commented on the decision.

It remains unclear when the youth transfers will begin. Edwards originally suggested it would be by the middle of August, but later said no inmate transfers would take place until after Dick ruled on the request for the temporary restraining order.

Dick wrote that “OJJ has shown that it will provide a constitutional level of care to youth transferred to the Temporary Transitional Treatment Unit proposed to be located at Angola. The court is mindful that the specter of the prison surroundings alone will likely cause psychological trauma and harm. However, the public interest and the balance of harms require that OJJ be afforded the latitude to carry out its rehabilitative mission for the benefit of all youth in its care.”

Dick heard testimony Sept. 6-8 from youth inmate advocates, psychiatrists, OJJ and DOC officials, and youth center guards, who painted an indelible picture of the safety hazard inside the state’s youth lockups.

“A small percentage of the OJJ population have caused substantial property destruction across OJJ campuses, with some dorms having been destroyed to the point of being uninhabitable,” the judge concluded. “These youth have also become increasingly aggressive and have engaged in serious acts of violence against other youth and OJJ staff, resulting in severely broken bones, crushed skulls, broken fingers, eye sockets, resulting in some instances in lifelong injuries to some (OJJ) staff members.

“Other youth have been victimized by the high-risk youth when they try to go to sleep at night, and they have reported they are afraid to go to sleep at night for fear of being attacked by these high-risk youth.”

The judge added, “The high-risk youth, primarily housed at (Bridge City), have destroyed the facility to the point that it can no longer provide enough beds for the youth,” and that a new Transitional Treatment Unit under construction at Swanson-Monroe is not expected to be ready to house youth inmates before April 2023.

Fox 8′s Rob Masson contributed to this report.

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