A juvenile justice advocacy group is suing the city of New Orleans, a little more than a month after the evacuation of a New Orleans juvenile detention center to an adult prison before Hurricane Ida.
Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children's lawsuit, filed by the Loyola Law Clinic, claims that the city's evacuation policy for the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center violates state law, and proved to be traumatic for the 36 teenagers sent to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel ahead of the storm.
The group announced the lawsuit Tuesday, standing outside of the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center to address the small gathering of lawyers and activists. At the announcement, Gina Womack, executive director of FFLIC, said she felt a lot of conflicting emotions, “Today is a hard day for me and I'm rattled."
The preliminary hearing for the lawsuit is set for Oct. 18. Womack said the city needed to be held accountable for this treatment of teenagers in custody.
“If history, experience if you will, is the best teacher, then New Orleans still has a lot to learn as our children were once again an afterthought during Ida. Even laws were ignored. I'm frustrated to stand here today once more some 16 years after Katrina and 18 years after our state began moving towards best practice and reforms, to once again stand in the gap of our parents who cannot be here today. To have to fight once more for humane treatment for our children. Enough is enough," Womack said.
Hector Linares, a Loyola University law professor who specializes in juvenile justice and the attorney for FFLIC, said that he had been hearing concerns about the evacuation for weeks.
“When parents and advocates started coming to us at Loyola, it became clear that there were serious problems with what had happened at JJIC during the evacuation. As we gathered more information, it was hard to imagine how such an obviously illegal policy was ever created, approved or implemented," Linares said.
According to a state statute that was enacted in 1992, “No child subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court shall be held in adult jail or lockup."
New Orleans planned for three years to send teens to an adult prison during hurricanes and other disasters. Government evacuation documents originally showed a partnership with the Dixon Correctional Institute, starting in 2018.
Forms submitted in 2020 and in May 2021 also listed Dixon as the detention center's evacuation site. Ken Pastorick, the prison system's spokesman, said the location was changed to Hunt due to a COVID-19 outbreak at Dixon.
A a “multi-level security" facility for those convicted of both nonviolent and violent offenses, Hunt prison houses around 1,600 adult male inmates and a few hundred women.
The lawsuit detailed the conditions of the youths held at Hunt, saying that the food was almost inedible, and that the teenagers were denied access to basic hygiene and held in long periods of isolation while suffering from excessive heat. The teens also saw adult prisoners while at the facility, according to the lawsuit.
The advocacy group seeks to prohibit the city from implementing this evacuation policy while the lawsuit is pending, and to get a hearing as soon as possible. The group wants the evacuation policy declared illegal by the court, and for the city to develop a new evacuation policy in line with the state constitution and Children's Code.
“Today we are saying that children can no longer wait," Womack said. “Improved plans must be put into place immediately to ensure our children are evacuated to appropriate facilities and never step foot into another adult prison again."
New Orleans has not responded to requests for comments at this time. The Juvenile Justice Intervention Center's director, Kyshun Webster, could not be reached.
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