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Judge in Louisiana will consider moving teens out of Angola state penitentiary

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a story now of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's known as Angola, after the plantation that operated there in the 1800s. And even after slavery formally ended, convicts worked there under conditions a lot like slavery. Today, the prison has a history of human rights abuses and medical neglect. And this week, a federal judge will hear about conditions affecting juveniles being held there temporarily. Teenagers as young as 15 years old say they're being placed in solitary confinement, denied services and subjected to unbearable heat at Angola. Their detention there was supposed to end in April, but they're still there.

INSKEEP: Reporter Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is with the Verite news service in New Orleans. She's been following this story. Good morning to you.

BOBBI-JEANNE MISICK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why are people as young as 15 at Angola in the first place?

MISICK: Well, the state started sending the kids there last fall because they needed to renovate a facility and make more space. There was overcrowding. And there was also some violent escapes from a youth detention center in southeast Louisiana. So the move to Angola was supposed to be temporary, but they missed that April deadline. Now attorneys filed a motion asking federal Judge Shelly Dick to order the state to stop sending youth to Angola prison and to release the ones who are currently there to adequate juvenile facilities. So I should say the updated facility is now set to be ready in October.

INSKEEP: Ah, October but not April. You mentioned attorneys filing a motion on behalf of the young people. What are they saying?

MISICK: Well, they're saying teenagers as young as 15 are being held in a unit formerly reserved for death row. They've complained that some cell blocks are lacking air conditioning. Temperatures in Louisiana have been near 100 degrees this summer, with heat indexes reaching as high as 120 degrees.

INSKEEP: Wow.

MISICK: They're also saying that Juvenile Justice guards have placed a whole cell block under solitary confinement, only allowing these youths out for eight minutes a day while handcuffed and shackled - to shower. And kids say they're not getting the educational and mental health services that the state is required to provide them. The case has even caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which issued a statement of interest ahead of the hearing.

INSKEEP: I'm kind of stuck on eight minutes a day, but I'll try to go on here. You said that there's a hearing in federal court this week. What happens?

MISICK: Well, I spoke with David Utter. He's the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. He said there will be expert testimony speaking to the dangers of exposing young people to things like solitary confinement and extreme heat. The hearing is expected to last multiple days this week.

INSKEEP: How does the state justify its conduct?

MISICK: Well, so the official position from the governor and the Office of the Juvenile Justice is to not comment on the cases. It's ongoing. But in legal filings, the state's position is that these kids are getting the specialized educational programs and mental health care that they need. They say the areas where the teens are kept are air conditioned. And the facility is being run like any juvenile justice center in the state. It just so happens to be on the campus of a maximum security prison.

INSKEEP: A lot of disputes about the facts. We'll hear what comes out of the hearing. Bobbi-Jeanne Misick from Verite news in New Orleans, thanks so much.

MISICK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick