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Juveniles trying to escape La. youth jail beat CO with pipe, ripped out cameras

The five juveniles turned violent when they attempted to escape the Swanson Center for Youth, a senator said

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AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

By James Finn
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

MONROE, La. — Five teens, three of whom the state recently removed from a youth lockup at the State Penitentiary at Angola, attempted a violent escape from a north Louisiana jail this week, ripping out cameras and pummeling a guard with a ceiling pipe before they were stopped.

Louisiana Sen. Heather Cloud revealed that information in an interview Friday, saying five teens turned to violence Thursday night as they tried to escape the Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe. At least three of them had been moved from the unit at Angola, Cloud said, which was set up last year to house high-risk teens but shuttered in September amid abuse allegations.

The violence at the Monroe facility is the latest sign that decades-old promises of reform — and more recent responses to numerous riots and abuse allegations — have fallen short, leaving Louisiana’s youth justice system ill-equipped to rehabilitate teens in its custody.

Cloud said Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Curtis Nelson , the agency’s top official, briefed her on the latest incident. Nelson told her the teens tried to escape and overpowered guards, tore down cameras, stole a radio and ripped out ceiling pipes in the process. The staff member beaten with the pipe is hospitalized, Cloud said.

Cloud, a Republican whose Acadiana-area district does not include the Monroe facility but who has shepherded juvenile justice legislation through the state Senate , issued a press release Friday criticizing state officials for their decision to move the youth there.

“I’m disturbed that OJJ and the administration found it suitable to move these juveniles that should have been classified as high-risk back into less-secure facilities,” said Cloud, R- Turkey Creek .

Nelson declined to comment on Cloud’s account in what he called an effort to “preserve the integrity of the law enforcement investigation” into the incident.

“We are committed to keeping the community informed once the criminal investigation is complete,” Nelson said.

The incident is part of a pattern of violence at the Swanson facility. Internal reports logged between June 2021 and June 2022 depicted a chaotic year inside the unit: Youth in certain dorms joined forces to assault those in other units, struck staff members with broom handles, and built other ad-hoc weapons, including a stick with nails protruding from it.

Turmoil at other youth detention facilities led state officials to open the high-security lockup inside an old death row building at Angola late last year — a last-ditch, interim option while construction continued on a permanent unit in Monroe . Officials described the Angola site as a “transitional treatment unit” meant to isolate youth labeled particularly problematic before returning them to less-restrictive environments.

The Angola site closed after a judge ruled this fall that teens’ civil rights were violated through “intolerable” use of solitary confinement, handcuffs, mace and a lack of educational and mental health programming.

At the time, Nelson said teens held in Angola would be moved to a site in Jackson Parish . But David Utter , a civil rights attorney who has represented teens held at Angola in federal court, said Friday that attorneys did not receive a clear sense from OJJ of where the youth who had been moved.

“We assumed that the kids from Angola had been moved all over, whether it be Swanson or (the Acadiana Center for Youth at) Bunkie or any of the juvenile facilities,” Utter said in an interview.

Cloud on Friday urged state officials to reopen the Angola unit and return the youth responsible for the violence at Swanson back to the facility. She fears for the lives of staff at lockups such as Monroe , she said, adding that the presence of Department of Corrections guards at Angola , who are trained to respond to adult prisoners, improved the situation when youth behaved violently.

Guards at that facility earned a scathing rebuke from Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in her September ruling ordering the state to shut down the Angola site. The state appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit but later closed the facility anyway.

Dick reviewed footage of guards macing a teen through the bars of his cell after he allegedly threw toilet water on one of them. Guards also withheld family visits as punishment, she said. Teens were held in former death row cells even though juvenile justice protocols strongly discourage holding youth in such harsh environments.

Utter said sending youth back to Angola “would be a disaster, because Angola was a disaster.” He said OJJ should be held responsible for hiring, programming and education woes that have contributed to the violence inside its facilities.

“It’s really important to put the responsibility for running safe, therapeutic facilities squarely where it belongs: on OJJ,” he said.


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