‘Unsanitary’ dorms, escapes and a riot: Suit seeks release of juveniles from youth prisons amid health crisis


LOUISIANA, (WDSU) – A class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court asks a judge to order the release of certain youths incarcerated at Louisiana’s four juvenile prisons.

The suit claims conditions are not safe or sanitary and threaten the health of the youth imprisoned there during the coronavirus crisis. In addition to the release of medically compromised and other youth, it asks for new protocols to protect staff and juveniles.

Named as defendants in the suit are the Office of Juvenile Justice, a division within the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that runs the four facilities, and some of its leaders, along with Gov. John Bel Edwards.

About 200 imprisoned youth are spread between Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish; Swanson Center for Youth Columbia; Swanson Center for Youth Monroe and Acadiana Center for Youth Bunkie.

The suit notes 28 out of the 29 youth who have been tested for COVID-19 had positive results. The Office of Juvenile Justice confirmed those figures to WDSU on May 4. As of that date, OJJ spokeswoman Elizabeth Touchet-Morgan said there were 218 juveniles at facilities. All 28 youth who had tested positive had recovered as of Thursday, the OJJ’s coronavirus data dashboard shows. A total of 41 staff members from the four facilities have also tested positive, 16 of which have recovered, the data show.

The OJJ had no comment about the newly filed lawsuit and its claims, Touchet-Morgan said Thursday.

Plaintiffs are represented by the New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative, the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, the Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers law firm and the New Orleans-based Low Office of John N. Adcock.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers say in a release the OJJ stopped testing youth for COVID-19 “weeks ago.”

Last week, Touchet-Morgan told WDSU that OJJ has not tested any youth since April 15 because no youth showed symptoms. The secure facility system is only testing youth who are symptomatic, which Touchet-Morgan said is based on federal and state health guidance. Thursday’s lawsuit claims, however, that at least one “sick child” requested a COVID-19 test “and was denied.”

“These children are especially vulnerable, living in communal, unsanitary dormitories that expose them to a very serious risk of contracting and spreading the deadly virus,” Laura Aronsson, a lawyer for O’Melveny & Myers, said in the release. Unsanitary conditions included a lack of deep cleanings where infected youth had been housed, she said.

A guard at Bridge City Center for Youth told WDSU last month of a lack of deep cleanings where COVID-19 positive youth had been housed, in addition to other unsanitary conditions that concerned him. OJJ responded at the time that the office had received reports of problems with deep cleanings at any of the youth facilities.

The suit also claims families “have been left in the dark,” about their loved ones’ medical conditions, Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said in the release. At least one parent was not told when her son tested positive for COVID-19, the lawyers claim, “despite numerous attempts to contact the facility.”

The suit claims steps OJJ has taken to mitigative the spread of the virus have harmed the juveniles emotional and psychological well-being.

“Exposing children to grave medical risk while simultaneously shutting down programming is truly the worst of both worlds,” Juvenile Law Center Chief Legal Officer Marsha Levick said. “Stripping children of their liberty in the name of treatment but instead locking them in highly confined spaces flips public health strategy on its head and ignores the constitutional rights of children in state custody.”

The circumstances of the pandemic mean youth can and should be returned to safety in their communities “as quickly as possible,” Levick added.

The OJJ has said the department has focused its coronavirus mitigation efforts on providing essential services to the youth while maintaining safety in their facilities, as well as public safety. The office’s efforts have included outreach to families of incarcerated youth, Touchet-Morgan has said.

Safety concerns cited in the suit include a riot at the Bridge City that led to the transfer of about half the facility’s population because of damage to the buildings, as well as two escape attempts in less than a month from the facility in Monroe.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all the youth at the four facilities, who range from age 10 to 21, though parents are named as plaintiffs if the child is under 18.

By: Emily Lane

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