BATON ROUGE, La (BRPROUD) – Two weeks ago, the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) transferred eight youths to Angola, a maximum-security facility that has historically housed adults.  

The eight youths live on a secluded part of the campus called the West Feliciana Center for Youth after a string of violence and escape attempts. Office of Juvenile Justice Assistant Secretary Curtis Nelson said the decision to move the youths has been successful.

“We believe that if the young people continue on the path that they are going that hopefully in about six weeks we will be able to transition them back to one of the main campuses,” Nelson said.

The West Feliciana Center used to house death row inmates and most recently was the home for incarcerated women. The setting raised a lot of red flags within the community including fears that the move would psychologically damage the teen boys, but Nelson said they invested a lot to transform the space.

“A lot of work was done to make it look like any other one of our secure campuses,” Nelson said.

The debate of whether or not to allow this move got heated as the OJJ and the governor’s office were sued in federal court in an attempt to block to transition. The state won its case and was granted the green light to go ahead with the plan.

“If we do have a youth on one of our preexisting campuses who’s acting out in a way of destruction of property, aggressive physical assaults on peers or staff or attempting to escape, that West Feliciana is just something that we can use to keep safety on all of our facilities,” Nelson said.

One concern that came up in court was if the youth would sleep in cells versus dorms, but Nelson said the juveniles like the new setup.

“What the young people have told us who are there now currently is that they feel a lot safer at night when it’s time to sleep,” Nelson said.

This move is meant to be temporary until the new Swanson Monroe Facility is built.

“That will be the new high-security facility,” Nelson said. “We are anticipating that facility opening maybe the late spring of 2023, it may go into the fall because there are some things out of our control.”

OJJ has been adamant that this is not a form of punishment but a rehabilitation plan, but whether it is intentional or not, it appears to some that the method could scare some of the youths straight.

“There have been conversations where they have asked my staff, ‘Am I going to go to West Feliciana?’ And what staff have reported back to those young people is that as long as you’re working your treatment plan and you don’t engage in one of those three behaviors that were listed that you don’t have to concern yourself,” Nelson said.

The age of youths being held at the West Feliciana Facility ranges from 15 to 18 years old. Nelson said each one had to display violence to other youths, faculty, or property or attempt to escape. He said they are only housing eight now while they work out staffing and training. But with the rate of new juveniles entering the system, this location could elevate some of that pressure.

“The numbers are high as far as youth being adjudicated and placed in states custody and that’s something I think the entire state we really need to step back and examine,” Nelson said. “Right now space is very limited and so until we can, we the state of Louisiana not just OJJ, but until the state of Louisiana we can get a handle on the number of youth who are being adjudicated and placed in states custody, we are going to need this extra space.”