After nearly a year of public outrage and advocacy efforts, detained youths were finally transferred from the former death row unit of Louisiana’s State Penitentiary into a separate juvenile detention center. These youth — most of whom are Black — suffered solitary confinement, inadequate schooling, inedible food and water, and extreme heat conditions in what’s considered the largest maximum-security prison in the country. However, transferring these children to a recently opened Jackson Parish juvenile facility in North Louisiana proves that this move is far from a victory, but rather another manifestation of the systemic violence wielded against children by our carceral state.
As cofounders of the Lafayette chapter of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), it is this systemic violence that both Chad and Jennifer Landry are working to overcome in one of the most heavily criminalized states in the country.
“I lost [my] child to dating violence — she was 17,” Jennifer Landry, a warm and enthusiastic organizer, looks back now at the picture she’s shown me. She’s replaying the moments contained in this photograph of her daughter and granddaughter, and after a while, offers a brief smile to let her husband and I know that she’s in this moment too. Once it fades, she continues. “In the beginning, I wouldn’t have wanted anything more than for [her daughter’s partner] to spend the rest of his life in jail, you know, because that was my daughter.”
Her tone shifts and a wave of sadness washes over me. Her thumb glosses over the photo again, and she speaks to it. “As time passed, my eyes started to open. He was 18 at the time — he lived in poverty. His mom was in and out of prison. He wasn’t guided in the way that he should have been. And had he been, he probably would have been in a better situation,” Jennifer says.
Chad, her husband, places his hand on hers. He is all too familiar with Louisiana’s carceral system, having spent much of his youth in and out of it. “It’s hard,” Chad stresses. “The education system here is not good at all. Parents are being paid low wages even though there’s a high cost of living. There’s a lack of resources for families and the youth.”
“We wanna prioritize rehabilitation over punishment for our children — teaching them the way of the world rather than throwing them away,” Jennifer shares, which Louisiana has the tendency to do. In fact, a 2020 report ranked Louisiana the worst in the nation on efforts to prioritize and protect children. A 2022 report finds 1 in 4 children living in poverty and 1 in 5 children living in a high poverty area in the state. Meanwhile, Louisiana ranks 46th in the nation for pre-K-12 education.
The Landrys say the state’s resources aren’t being used to help children — the funds are instead going to perpetuate incarceration. “The state spends up to $150,000 a year for each kid that’s incarcerated and only $11,000 a year for each kid that’s educated,” Chad stresses. Infamously, Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice spent $550,000 to renovate the former death row facility at the notorious Angola State Penitentiary to hold incarcerated youth. “That’s money that could be going to our schools, for counseling, recreation centers and programs,” Jennifer declares, “not locking up kids.”
It’s also money that could have gone to fund Louisiana’s Act 1225, the 2003 Juvenile Justice Reform Act designed to transform the state’s punitive youth criminal legal system to instead center rehabilitation for criminalized youth. The act was inspired by the Missouri Model of juvenile justice — which, rather than putting criminalized children in punitive correctional facilities, places them in small dorm-like centers close to home and uses rigorous individualized and group therapy treatments as well as enhanced academic services to help transition youth back into their communities. To apply this model into the context of Louisiana, the bill established the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission, which was tasked with transitioning juvenile correctional facilities into rehabilitative centers, transforming school disciplinary systems to uphold behavioral support systems and mental health services in an effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and reinvesting state resources from correctional facilities to community-based programs needed for troubled youth and their families. And while this panel made strides by ultimately shutting down the infamous Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in 2004, those savings were not reinvested in community-based alternatives as promised, and both a lack of funding and overall neglect by state legislators caused the panel to remain stagnant. In fact, since 2004, only one other juvenile correctional facility was shut down — meanwhile three new facilities were developed, including at Angola and the newest Jackson Parish juvenile facility set to incarcerate Angola’s youth detainees. “The commission was moving and things were happening. But, you know, life happens in Louisiana,” said FFLIC Executive Director Gina Womack.
Now, however, there is a heavy emphasis on redirecting resources to end child incarceration through Louisiana’s Act 1225. The Southern University Law Center recently received a $250,000 federal grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice to revive the now 20-year-old Juvenile Justice Reform Act. With this grant, the law center plans to hire interns and other trained staff to assist the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission through research, meeting with stakeholders, and offering suggestions to legislators to transform juvenile correctional facilities and reinvest that funding towards rehabilitative and community-based care for criminalized youth.
And while this is definitely a step in a positive direction, I can’t help but think of how funding like this could instead be directed toward the most impacted community members. Community members who are well aware of their own needs. Grassroots organizers like Chad and Jennifer Landry who have done the research and work outside of institutionalized settings, keeping track of an ever-growing list of resources that their communities repeatedly emphasize they need in order to survive and thus prevent the insecurities leading to child incarceration.
Just last year, child advocacy groups including FFLIC, Youth First Initiative and Three Flights published a report outlining the unmet needs of youth and families in Louisiana and explained the ineffectiveness of youth incarceration. They emphasized that supporting basic community needs like affordable housing, economic development and infrastructure, as well as the promotion of mentorship programs, mental health care services, prosocial recreational activities and civic engagement opportunities will address the root causes of crime within vulnerable youth and families.
Further addressing community needs, FFLIC has implemented various programs such as the Rearing Court-Involved Youth project, working with the juvenile court system to provide parents of court-involved youth with individualized training, support and mentoring, as well as an advocacy initiative which pushes for rehabilitative treatment and reentry programs before and after children are incarcerated. State resources could benefit crucial community-based initiatives like these tremendously.
Right now, the Landrys are strengthening their story circle initiative, educating community members around the systemic failures that lead to youth incarceration. They’re fighting for parents to have the resources they need to take care of their children. “These people — their backs are against the wall. And that’s impacting our children.”
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