Appeals court pauses removal of incarcerated youths from Louisiana's maximum-security adult prison

BATON ROUGE, LA. (AP) — A federal appeals court has temporarily halted a judge’s order that juvenile detainees must be removed by Friday from a former death row building at a Louisiana prison for adults.

The motion was granted by a three-judge panel on Wednesday pending a full review. It effectively pauses the initial ruling, issued last week by U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge, to transfer the youths from their temporary incarceration at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Attorneys for the youths have until noon Friday to file opposition to the stay request.

David Utter, one of the attorneys who originally sued the state over the transfer of juveniles to the Angola facility, said that while he is upset by the temporary pause, he hopes the appeals court “will see it our way.”

“Any day, any hour, kids are in that facility is harmful to them,” Utter said on Thursday.

Otha “Curtis” Nelson Jr., the deputy secretary of Louisiana's Office of Juvenile Justice, said in a statement Thursday that the temporary pause allows his department to continue considering options available to the state that will "ensure the safety of staff, community members, and youth in our care.”

Juvenile detainees and their advocates allege in a lawsuit that youths have been held in harmful conditions at the penitentiary, suffering through dangerous heat waves, extended confinement to their cells, foul water and inadequate schooling.

Proponents have argued that the space is needed to house “high-risk” aggressive youths, many of whom have been involved in violent incidents at other detention facilities, and that locking them up at the adult prison keeps the community safe.

Juvenile inmates were first transferred last October to Angola -- one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the country and dubbed by some as the “Alcatraz of the South.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the transfer after problems at youth detention centers in the summer of 2022 including a riot and multiple escapes. One escapee from a New Orleans-area facility is accused of a carjacking and shooting before he was captured. Transferring youths to Angola was described as a last-ditch but necessary measure amid capacity and safety concerns at juvenile detention facilities elsewhere.

Louisiana officials said the plan to transfer some youths to Angola was intended to reduce the youth detainee population at other troubled facilities until new, more secure facilities can be built or renovated. The transfers were supposed to have been a short-term fix, with a goal of moving youths from Angola to a new secure facility in Monroe by spring 2023. However, the timeline has been pushed back to November.

As of late August, 15 youths were housed in the Angola facility, but as many as 70 or 80 have passed through, according to attorneys working with the American Civil Liberties Union. The Associated Press requested an updated number of incarcerated youths in the lockup, but the Office of Juvenile Justice did not provide one on Thursday.