By Sarah Belton, Brian Blalock and Yi Li
“Angola, Can You Hear Us,” recently shortlisted for an Oscar, shines light through both the film and its related activism on the shameful legacy of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or as it is more commonly known, Angola, the most notorious prison in the world.
Instead of making reforms, Louisiana has doubled down, and now, incredibly, is moving children in its juvenile justice system into Angola. As we enter Oscar season and more eyes are on Louisiana, it is time not just to acknowledge the past, but to look for modern solutions for youth who are being warehoused in these horrific conditions.
Louisiana, with the world’s highest incarceration rate [prisonpolicy.org] — where Black youth are six times more likely [sentencingproject.org] to be incarcerated than their white peers — will put children behind bars at the site of a former slave plantation, where slavery continued in all but name after the Civil War under the convict leasing system. Even now, the Angola penitentiary remains synonymous with racism and the ongoing human rights abuses of its incarcerated population. This is no place for children.
Many other states — including, Missouri [ovc.ojp.gov], Utah [cjja.net], and New Mexico — have designed modern, effective juvenile justice systems that focus on interventions to strengthen children, families and their communities, support real rehabilitation and make the public safer. For example, New Mexico has been transforming [cyfd.org] its juvenile justice system from one of punishment to one of rehabilitative care. It did this by working with youth in their community, increasing supports for families and involving local community partners to help implement programs around prevention, early intervention, and the educational needs of youth in the juvenile justice system.
New Mexico’s transformation [cyfd.org] is data-driven and uses risk assessments, mental health and trauma screenings that address the individual needs of each child and including alternatives to placing youth in locked facilities. As a result, New Mexico had around 70 youth [cyfd.org] in locked facilities as of 2021, down from 140 in 2018 and reduced [cyfd.org] out-of-state placements by half so that youth can be closer to their families and in community based programs.
The vast majority of children involved in our nation’s juvenile justice systems have experienced significant trauma throughout their lives and have been victims themselves of abuse and neglect. To help these children heal, New Mexico expanded access to community-based therapeutic services designed to help young people heal from histories of trauma and violence with individual, family, and group therapy.
For those few youth in locked facilities, the same supports are available including physical/mental health screenings, therapeutic services, high school classes, and job training programs, each with professional staff on site to support the activity, For youth exiting the juvenile justice system, increased housing and employment supports are available.
In contrast, the Angola facility is the total opposite of what youths need to become healthy, productive adults. One former Louisiana juvenile justice official said, “It’s abhorrent. Moving kids to your adult maximum security prison campus, where you send adults to die is the worst juvenile justice policy decision probably ever made in modern times.”
Youth are housed in Angola’s former death row, in “prison cells with barred sliding doors that lock [the youth] in [aclu.org].” Such a move is not only terrible for children, it is also exorbitantly expensive with the State reportedly budgeting up to a million dollars to house children in Angola.
As the country emerges from a pandemic during which youth incarceration declined [backend.nokidsinprison.org], states like Louisiana with a history of racism and human rights violations have an opportunity to change failed juvenile justice policies and create a system that invests in families and not facilities.
States should invest in evidenced-based successful programs that focus on expanding access to community-based interventions, including therapeutic programs, and other community-based supports with linkages to strong schooling, mentoring, and poverty-fighting programs – services families and children need and want.
Louisiana (and other states) should invest in its youth and its communities instead of in its prisons. Youth and families who receive the support they need create strong communities. Stronger communities create the safer communities we all need.
Sarah Belton leads the Racial Justice Pilot Project in the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School. Brian Blalock is a senior staff attorney at the Youth Law Center and the former Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department, which includes the state juvenile justice system. Yi Li is a student at Stanford Law School participating in the Racial Justice Pilot Project in the Mills Legal Clinic.