Louisiana Governor Edwards says some juvenile offenders will be transferred to Angola

Staff Report

Some underage offenders will be moved to a site at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as the state continues to grapple with security failures at juvenile detention facilities, Gov. John Bel said in a press conference last week at the State Capitol.

The move came as the state Office of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections announced an internal investigation into security failures that led to escapes from the Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans early Sunday. “The escapes from Bridge City cannot and will not continue,” Edwards said.

“Recent disturbances within the facility have led to problems in the surrounding community and that is not acceptable. We are determined to restore safety and security.

“It is clear that there was a violation of the approved plan of action for additional security at Bridge City this past weekend,” Edwards said, “We are taking swift action to correct that, while also focusing on short-term and long-term solutions that will bring greater safety not only to the youth in OJJ’s system but also the community near Bridge City.”

Escapes have plagued OJJ facilities across the state.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi, who has seen the spike in juvenile crimes throughout the state in the past several years, said the announcement furthers the need for more juvenile facilities.

He said the move also exposes the flaws in the “Raise the Age” legislation that allowed 17-year-olds to be tried as juvenile.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi

“I think it sends a clear message to how serious this is and how we need to have pretrial places to put these juvenile offenders, the seriousness of the crimes they’re committing, and it shows we may have gone a little too far with the 17-year-olds,” he said. “They should at least make it where certain crimes automatically go to an adult court. Once you’re indicted to a certain crime, you should be transferred to the adult court.”

The initial review of the incident early in the hours of July 17 – in which six juveniles escaped – led to OJJ’s determination that numerous deficiencies and failures contributed to the escapes.

These included an unauthorized deviation by an OJJ employee from procedures for the additional staffing support from DOC to conduct roving patrols of the interior and exterior of the facility.  

As a result, three Bridge City employees have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The escapes, theft and shooting put youth, staff and communities at risk, Edwards said.

The transfers to Angola will begin next month. They will include the most dangerous offenders, and they will be placed in an isolated facility, he said.

They will not have contact with adult inmates. The structure will be apart from the camps that house adult inmates. It is attached to the administration building

The building is a secure independent housing unit in front of the prison, once used as a reception center.

The next immediate steps at Bridge City will include the increased OJJ staffing in each dorm, keeping additional staff from State Police and DOC in place to monitor and secure the campus, increased communication between augmented and facility staff and around the clock presence by OJJ leadership.

“The issues that are being addressed are complicated, and the lack of staff is compounded by the poor condition of the dorms and other buildings at the center,” Edwards said.

“A few weeks ago, OJJ was provided with additional manpower from the State Police and the Department of Corrections and that will remain in place as we implement more measures through a coordinated effort between all of the agencies in order to provide both an immediate response, as well as more long-term solutions.

“That work is already happening. Given the number of juveniles in the system, closing Bridge City is not currently an option, he said.

“However, we are working to significantly reduce the number of juveniles at BCCY, and we are taking every precaution possible to protect the juveniles, staff and community during this process.”

Youth who are part of the Juvenile Understanding and Managing Problematic Behavior Program (JUMP) for juveniles adjudicated of sexual offenses will remain at BCCY.

They will continue to receive specialized counseling with on-campus therapists and social workers with whom they have established relationships.

These juveniles represent half of those housed at BCCY and have not been part of the recent escapes or disturbances.

Once the transition period begins, the number of youths and accessible buildings and grounds at BCCY will be reduced to include only those dorms and public areas accessed by youth taking part in JUMP. 

More permanent, long-term solutions are being developed, according to Edwards.

Construction of new juvenile housing at the Swanson facility in Monroe is underway and scheduled to be in operation by spring 2023.

The new behavioral health unit at Cypress, located at Swanson, is being renovated to resume individualized behavioral treatment of detained juveniles.

Opportunities for additional facilities around the state are being evaluated as well as refurbishing existing facilities for the intake, assessment, and placement of incoming juveniles.

“Like everybody said, I’m very upset about what happened this weekend,” said Bill Summers, director of the state Office of Juvenile Justice.

“It shouldn’t have happened and we’re taking appropriate steps to make certain it does not happen again.

“We’ve gone over every option and came up with what we consider the best plan for us to greatly improve security for the youth, staff and community.”

The majority of our juveniles in secure care are not causing problems, he said.

“It is small number, but they’re causing tremendous chaos,” Summers said. “Once we’re able to renovate Jetson CC, we will transfer the youth to that location where they will be housed in more permanent solutions.

Summers said he has not lost confidence in OJJ.

“I’ll admit that Bridge City is not an ideal situation – far from it,” he said.

One reporter asked how he would rate his performance.

“Not good,” he said. “But I’m confident it won’t happen again.”

Meanwhile, Stassi said he does not see an easy fix to the issues the state faces with juvenile offenders.

“It’s a tough spot we’re in, and as you can see from the juvenile facilities in our state, they’re not ready for the type of juveniles that we’re sending them,” he said. “The cost of maintaining those facilities is the problem, and what it takes to be up to the code of everything with teachers, nurses and sizes of the cells.

All those factors are determined by guidelines,” Stassi said. “This is not something that will be easy to fix, but we do need to have a place to put these people.”