COVID-19 outbreak, riot and escape add fuel to debate over La. youth prison releases
Advocates said the dramatic incidents underscored their call for youths to be released to their homes
By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
JEFFERSON PARISH, La. — Louisiana’s youth prison system, which was already experiencing one of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks among juvenile inmates, was further rocked by a mass escape in Monroe on Sunday and riot at the lock-up in Bridge City on Monday.
State officials said they had quelled the disturbance at the Bridge City Center for Youth and captured most of the youths who escaped from the other prison, but advocates said the dramatic incidents underscored their call for youths to be released to their homes.
“Any facility is harder to manage the larger the population is,” said Renée Slajda, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “That’s always true. But right now, there are so many reasons to send children home it’s even more stark.”
At Bridge City, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies had to be called in for support after dozens of youths rioted on Monday night. Two youths received medical attention for “minor” injuries and no guards were seriously hurt, according to the state Office of Juvenile Justice.
Thirty-eight youths involved in the incident were transferred to other juvenile prisons in Louisiana, the state said.
Juvenile corrections officials have repeatedly resorted to transferring their wards after disturbances in recent years. But youth advocates have raised concerns that the transfers could further spread coronavirus in a prison system that's had a major outbreak.
Louisiana had 28 of the nation’s 108 confirmed coronavirus cases among youth prisoners as of April 20, according to the state and the national non-profit the Sentencing Project.
State officials said the Bridge City youths were not tested for coronavirus before being transferred to other facilities. But all 10 youths who caught COVID-19 at Bridge City have since recovered, according to a state spokeswoman. The youths who were transferred are being isolated at their new facilities, she added.
"Therefore, no COVID-19 protocols were compromised during this incident," said Beth Touchet-Morgan, the Office of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, the youth prison system also experienced a major, previously unreported break-out on Sunday from the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe.
On April 6, two juveniles slipped out before being recaptured the next day.
This time around, 11 youths escaped from the lock-up’s “behavior intervention unit,” where they were supposed to be under close observation pending the results of internal investigations.
State employees fanned out to find the escaped youths. As of Tuesday, 10 of the 11 escapees had been captured, Touchet-Morgan said. She declined to name the youth who remains on the run.
Slajda, the spokeswoman for the group that defends children in juvenile court, said the riot and escape underscored her concerns about the prison system’s ability to care for children and control them during the coronavirus pandemic.
Twenty-five youth prison employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and only three had recovered as of Tuesday. To fill the gap, the state has dispatched juvenile probation officers to patrol the prisons.
“They’ve brought in probation officers who did not sign up for that job, who did not train for that job,” Slajda said. She said the probation officers used pepper spray on the youths at Bridge City.
She said the youths are even more restive because the state has eliminated family and teacher visits, and expanded its use of isolation, in an effort to control the spread of the virus.
“Most of the steps that they can take to slow the spread are incredibly harmful to kids and to their rehabilitation,” she said. “So the problem there is not necessarily what OJJ can or can’t provide, it’s the fact that many of these kids shouldn’t be there at all.”
Her group and others have called on the state to re-evaluate whether more youths can be released on furlough.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said at an April 15 press conference that staffing was adequate and furloughs are being considered only for a small group of youths with chronic medical conditions.
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