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After 20 years of doing the work to protect children and dismantle the inhumane youth prison system at Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, I have seen  firsthand the failures of the system to protect Louisiana’s children. But I am still livid to learn about the evacuation of incarcerated children to adult facilities during and in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Natural disasters are inevitable in this area, but the failures of the system could have and should have been fixed long ago. Despite the fact that during the past two decades, we have also witnessed the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the BP oil spill–all of which have impacted Black and low-income people the most– it is clear that our systems leaders still haven’t learned.

Amid another disaster– Hurricane Ida– and a global pandemic with cases spiking in Louisiana, those who have been entrusted to care for our most vulnerable children have acted beyond negligently. The City of New Orleans should be ashamed that fourteen-year-old kids who hadn’t even been convicted of any crimes were locked up in a prison for adults. Just as Governor Bel Edwards and the Office of Juvenile Justice should be ashamed that we have not moved beyond the same problems of abuse, violence, and racism that we have faced for decades in our youth prison system.

As a whole, youth prisons are inhumane and ineffective in keeping youth or communities any safer. Additionally, these impacts are felt mostly in our communities of color. In Louisiana, youth are six times as likely to be detained or committed in youth facilities as their white peers. During a global pandemic and devastating hurricane, we should be putting the well-being of young people first. Louisiana’s families and children deserve better than the unnecessary trauma of separation, incarceration, and the inability to make direct contact with loved ones, especially during these life-threatening times.

I spoke to parents who did not even know where their children were during the Hurricane. The pain and concern of not knowing where your child is as a Category 4 storm barrels toward your home and community is absolutely unbearable. Meanwhile, incarcerated youth who were sent to an adult prison reported that they were “hungry” and that the conditions at the prison were “scary and upsetting.”

These are the painful realities of the youth incarceration system.

No family or youth should have to deal with this. We have the solutions to ensure true justice and dignity for all of our young people and nurture our communities.  In 2003 Louisiana passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 2003 and Act 555 of 2004 to transform our youth justice system into a holistic model of prevention, care, and key services for mental health, supportive housing, and fair access to education. Those resources alone would mitigate crime by attacking the root causes- instead of punishing a child after the damage has already been done. 

Yet, the Governor, the Office of Juvenile Justice and local jurisdictions still refuse to implement these necessary changes, and the promises of the legislation have still been unfilled despite having the public support. We know that 74% of Lousianans support changing the youth prison system so that incarceration is not the default response for youth in the justice system and 80% agree that states and cities should get financial incentives to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration such as intensive rehabilitation, education, job training, community services, and other programs that provide youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

Our policymakers have been failing our families and youth for years now, but Hurricane Ida has once again illuminated the blatant neglect and harm that continues in our youth justice system. Our young people deserve justice and freedom from this system that fails to truly help them or treat them and their families as humans, let alone recognize that they are some of the most vulnerable among us. Our state leaders have the moral obligation and responsibility to shut down all of Louisiana’s prisons and finally protect all of Louisiana’s children and their futures.

Gina Womack,
C0-Founder and Executive Director