Our country’s incarcerated youth are in crisis, and they have been for a long time.
Children are locked away from their families, facing shackles, pepper spray and solitary confinement. While these horrors persist nationwide, nowhere are they more apparent than in Louisiana.
Child abuse, escapes and violence are making our youth prisons worse, thanks to years of state failures. Instead of helping, Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to force incarcerated youth into Angola, one of the country’s most inhumane adult prisons.
That's why we came together as young leaders from Black Girls Rising, a project of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and Black Man Rising to demand the state halt these plans and recommit to transforming our youth justice system into one of support and rehabilitation.
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Things will get worse unless our leaders start to listen to us.
If politicians cared about protecting youth, they would stop funding a system proven to fail and start holding Edwards and Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice accountable.
Plagued by ignorance and abuse
We have been horrified by the responses toward youth trying to escape from facilities, including Bridge City Center for Youth, and we can only imagine how desperate they are to get out of prison. Even before going to jail, many of them have experienced hardships and witnessed traumatic things in their families and neighborhoods. Being locked up becomes too much for them to bear.
Yet, instead of listening to cries for help, lawmakers have doubled down on putting kids behind bars. While many policymakers have recognized that Bridge City should be shut down because it is unsafe for both staff and youth, the state’s solution for what to do with the young people inside is to move them to a maximum security prison.
The evidence that Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice doesn’t know how to care for kids keeps growing. In March, a Marshall Project investigation exposed the abusive conditions in the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville, where young people were held in long-term solitary confinement, shackled with leg irons, and denied education and treatment. Ongoing violence prompted an investigation by the state’s inspector general.
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Yet, Louisiana officials keep giving the Office of Juvenile Justice more money, even though it’s clear that it is failing and that the number of young people locked up is trending down.
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The Office of Juvenile Justice also has many vacant positions. If those jobs were eliminated and youth prisons were reduced, the state could free up millions of dollars to spend on rehabilitative services, like mental health programs, that provide young people with the care they need.
To curb crime, boost resources
We understand that Louisianans are afraid of crime, but the answer isn’t to move kids to adult prisons.
As highlighted by a new report, the way to mitigate the root causes of crime is to increase resources for communities. Young people who live in poverty don’t have nearly enough of the support and services they need. But research shows that for most youth, access to treatment in their community is the most effective way to address behavioral and mental health needs, which will also prevent future contact with the justice system.
Angola is no place for any person, especially a child, and better options are available to address the crisis that youth are facing. We need elected officials, in Louisiana and nationwide, to have the courage to step back from the harmful approaches and systems we have in place.
The violence and abuse in youth prison speak for themselves – youth incarceration systems are at a breaking point. Once we agree to work together, as a community and as a country, a better future is possible.
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Cameron Dumas graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University with a major in criminal justice and is a youth leader with Black Girls Rising. Jeremiah James, co-founder of Black Man Rising, is a culture coach and works in the fields of social justice, education and mentorship.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Louisiana's criminal justice system is putting kids in adult prisons