New Orleans teens convicted as adults force transfer of women prisoners to all-male Angola
Anticipating a housing crunch, Louisiana’s prison system last week moved 18 incarcerated women into a building at the all-male state penitentiary at Angola. It’s the same building recently used to hold incarcerated youth in the juvenile justice system.
The Department of Public Safety and Corrections said it was forced to transfer the women to make room for three girls, ages 16 and 17, at the women’s prison at the old Jetson Center for Youth in Baker.
The relocation is expected to be temporary. All the women are supposed to return to Jetson in about a month once an expansion has been completed. In all, there are about 430 women at the prison.
“The Department is currently preparing another facility at the Jetson location for the adult offenders, which is expected to take approximately a month,” Ken Pastorick, the prison system’s spokesman, said in a written statement this week.
This latest churn of incarcerated people speaks to the operational challenges that come with imprisoning youth offenders, even when they are convicted of adult crimes and sentenced to adult prison.
Federal standards require correctional facilities carve out special housing for incarcerated minors separate from adults.
“You are more likely to be sexually victimized in custody when you are a younger person — by the staff, by volunteers or by other prisoners” said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law, who directs the Project on Addressing Prison Rape.
“That is true for both male and female facilities,” she said.
Louisiana’s prison for women did not have enough space to accommodate the three underage girls apart from the adults. So it moved a small group of adult women to Angola, while officials rearrange space at Jetson to fit everyone.
The girls coming into the prison system — Briniyah Baker, 17, Lenyra Theophile, 16, and Mar’Qel Curtis, 16 — pleaded guilty last month to charges of attempted manslaughter in the high-profile murder case of Linda Frickey.
Frickey, a 73 year-old grandmother, was killed during a carjacking gone awry in 2022. John Honore, 18, and the girls ended up dragging Frickey from her stolen car for several blocks after she got tangled in a seatbelt.
The brutal incident outraged New Orleans and became a rallying cry for those in favor of drastic measures to crack down on crime. Conservative politicians have used Frickey’s death to argue today’s teenagers are unusually violent and out of control.
Frickey’s case is also one of the examples in which Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams ended up charging underage teenagers as adults, despite making campaign promises he would keep minors in the juvenile justice system.
Unlike adult prisons, juvenile justice facilities and treatment centers are supposed to be focused entirely on rehabilitation. Children’s advocates consider them more appropriate for young people whose brains aren’t fully developed yet.
But there’s been pressure on Williams and other prosecutors to treat minors as if they are adults in response to a perceived surge in crime, especially when they are suspected of committing heinous acts like Frickey’s murder.
Still, sentencing teenagers to adult prisons doesn’t mean they can be treated exactly like adult prisoners. The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act forces the state to offer protections to underage people to shield them from sexual abuse.
Minors “shall not be placed in a housing unit in which the youthful inmate might have sight, sound, or physical contact with any adult inmate through use of a shared dayroom or other common space, shower area, or sleeping quarters,” according to the National PREA Resource Center, a federally funded group that provides guidance to correctional facilities on federal law.
The Louisiana prison system’s own regulations mirror those federal standards.
“[T]he Department shall either maintain ‘sight and sound separation’ between youthful offenders and adult offenders to prevent adult offenders from seeing or communicating with youthful offenders, or provide direct staff supervision when youthful offenders and adult offenders are together,” read guidelines published by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Gender politics are also responsible, in part, for the shuffle of incarcerated women to Angola.
Louisiana’s prison system is already ready to accommodate boys who are convicted as if they are adults. There’s an entire unit at Dixon Correctional Institute in East Feliciana Parish dedicated to housing and services for underage boys.
Prison officials are less prepared to handle girls sentenced as adults because it happens so infrequently. The women’s prison didn’t have appropriate housing for the girls from New Orleans because none of the female inmates currently in the system are under the age of 18, Pastorick said.
Upgrades made to Jetson to make room for the teenagers are also ultimately temporary.
Incarcerated women are only housed in Baker because the permanent women’s prison in St. Gabriel flooded in 2016. Construction on a new $149 million Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women is supposed to finish at the end of 2024.
The short-term transfer of incarcerated women to Angola also likely means the Office of Juvenile Justice won’t be returning incarcerated youth under its watch to the state penitentiary in the near future.
Pastorick declined to say where on Angola’s sprawling campus the women are being kept, but criminal justice advocates who talk with prison officials regularly said it is in the same controversial building the juvenile justice system was recently using.
Juvenile justice officials were forced to abandon that facility a few months ago when a federal judge ordered it shut down for constitutional violations. That federal order expired this month.
Its lapse has raised questions about whether incarcerated boys at juvenile justice facilities would be moved back to Angola, but the relocation seems unlikely as long as the women are staying in the building.
Standards for juvenile justice facilities are also higher than they are for adult prisons, meaning the prison system is not as likely to face the same legal challenges for housing women in the building as the juvenile justice system did this year. Incarcerated women were kept in that building from 2020 to 2022, a few months before the juvenile justice system took it over.
The women who have been transferred to Angola are facing disciplinary action and have been placed in segregation already, so they aren’t expected to participate in any prison programming while at the men’s prison, Pastorick said.
They will have the same family visitation opportunities that were available to them at the women’s prison.