Following Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ announcement last month that the state will temporarily house incarcerated youth at the Louisiana State Penitentiary complex, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR), Loyola University and the Southern Poverty Law Center are raising concerns that the facility is not equipped to meet the children’s educational and rehabilitative needs.
In a letter released this week, the organizations demanded that state education and prison officials provide a detailed written plan outlining how children held at the prison, known as Angola, will receive general and special education services. State law requires all schools to provide at least 360 minutes of instructional time per day and 177 days of instruction per year to students up to age 19.
“All children must have their right to an education protected,” SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Lauren Winkler said. “We are deeply concerned that depriving them of this right will only serve to undermine efforts to rehabilitate, create even more barriers in their lives, and prohibit them from succeeding and thriving.”
Under Edwards’ plan, about 25 children currently housed at the Bridge City Center for Youth will relocate to Angola while new juvenile facilities are built or renovated. The move is expected to take place as early as this month. Without an intentional, coordinated effort between the Office of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Corrections, the Special School District, and the Louisiana Department of Education, advocates warn that youth housed at Angola may be deprived of their education and lack other opportunities for growth and rehabilitation.
“The governor’s outrageous decision to move children to Angola will not only expose vulnerable children to serious risk of physical harm and trauma, but it will also deprive children of their legal right to individualized and supportive education,” said Allison Zimmer, a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney at LCCR.
Federal law guarantees incarcerated children the right to receive high school credits and opportunities to earn their diplomas. However, because Angola is an adult facility, it does not staff general or special education teachers and has no infrastructure to provide high school education to students with various needs.
Youths who do not have access to an education are more likely to face recidivism.
“Moving these children to an adult, maximum-security prison that is unequipped to provide educational services will deprive them of their right to critical general and special education and related services,” said Sara Godchaux, a staff attorney at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “The loss of these vital rehabilitative services for our most vulnerable youth is also detrimental to society as a whole.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice and the Special School District have a history of failing to prioritize or plan for the education needs of children in their custody. Last year, LCCR and the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic & Center for Social Justice at Loyola University identified numerous legal violations at the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville. For several months, children at the facility went without access to general or special education programming.
“OJJ has repeatedly failed to provide quality education to youth in custody, so we have grave concerns about its ability to do so at Angola,” Zimmer said. “Education for the most vulnerable youth cannot be an afterthought, as it is not only their right but a critical component of their rehabilitation.”
Known for its brutality, Angola prison is named for the slave plantation that once occupied its grounds. In 1880, the former Confederate major who bought the plantation began incarcerating people in former slave quarters. It is now the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S.
Photo at top: Angola prison (Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)