“No Light. No Nothing.” Inside Louisiana’s Harshest Juvenile Lockup

ST. MARTINVILLE, La. Lawyers and a judge gathered in an East Baton Rouge juvenile courtroom last October for an update on a teenager detained after joyriding in a stolen car. The teen appeared on a screen, alongside a caseworker who stunned everyone by describing conditions in the lockup where he was held.

The 15-year-old was being kept in round-the-clock solitary confinement. He was getting no education, in violation of state and federal law, nor was he getting court-ordered substance abuse counseling, according to two defense attorneys present. And no one in the room that day — not the judge, not the prosecutor, not the defense lawyers — appeared to have heard of the facility where Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice was holding him: the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville.

This article was published in partnership with ProPublica and NBC News.Join the reporters for a live virtual event on March 24 for a behind-the-scenes look at how they got the story and discussion of the juvenile justice system more broadly.

“It was as if a secret prison had been opened up,” one of the attorneys, Jack Harrison, said. “I could see on the judge’s face both shock and real anger — visceral anger.”

They had no idea how bad it was.

Scrambling to respond to a wave of violence and escapes from other juvenile facilities, state officials quietly opened the high-security lockup last summer to regain control of the most troubled teens in their care. Instead, they created a powder keg, according to dozens of interviews, photos, video footage, hundreds of pages of incident reports, emergency response logs, emails and education records.

Though Louisiana policy considers solitary confinement for youths a rare last resort and many other states have placed strict limits on it because of the psychological harm it causes, teens in this facility, some with serious mental illness, were locked alone in their cells for at least 23 hours a day for weeks on end. They were shackled with handcuffs and leg irons when let out to shower, and given little more than meals slid through slots in their doors. Some teens took those brief moments of human contact to fling their feces and urine at the guards.

At least two of the teens in the facility harmed themselves so badly that they required medical attention. Some destroyed beds and shattered light fixtures, using the metal shards to hack holes in the cinder block walls large enough for them to escape.

Photos taken by a then-staff member at St. Martinville show holes dug into cell walls. Youths detained there broke off ceiling light fixtures and used them to tunnel through the walls, according to the staffer and internal documents.

A teen broke through the concrete wall of his cell and escaped, according to an incident report logged by staff on Jan. 20, 2022.

Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice

“I got frustrated with the whole situation and refused to go back in the pod because of being scared,” one guard wrote in an October incident report after a night spent listening to banging on the walls. Her supervisor, she wrote, advised her “to keep all doors closed secure in case they get out because it was only two female workers,” noting that he did not check the cells because he “did not have enough manpower to do it.”

On several occasions, guards responded to transgressions with violence, according to incident reports obtained through a public records request. Three slammed door hatches on teens’ hands. One struck a boy with his knee and fired pepper spray into a teen’s cell, leaving him coughing and vomiting.

“This is child abuse,” said Mark Soler, executive director at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a public interest group based in Washington, who previously served on a Louisiana task force reviewing care at the state’s juvenile facilities. “It’s outrageous that children should be held under conditions where they are locked in their room for most of the day and held in shackles when they exit. It is cruel to the children, and it is far outside accepted professional standards.”

Carmen Daugherty, the policy director at Youth First Initiative, an advocacy organization that seeks to end the incarceration of youth, called the conditions at St. Martinville “egregious.”

“It’s like you put all of the things that we talk about that are so wrong with our youth justice system and you put it in one facility,” she said.

The last two decades have brought enormous change to the U.S. juvenile justice system: Almost every state slashed the number of incarcerated young people by half or more, favoring probation, therapy and community programs for all but those who commit the most severe crimes. But as states lock up fewer children, many are struggling to care for the ones left behind, the most troubled among an already marginalized group that is disproportionately Black and facing complex psychological and social issues.

Some states have addressed these youths by “wrapping them pretty tight” with therapy, education and family involvement, said Candice Jones, former director of the juvenile justice department in Illinois. “The programs and services we’re providing them need to be the best.” (Jones now heads the Public Welfare Foundation, which provides funding to The Marshall Project.) But many states have fallen short. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has investigated abuses in juvenile facilities in Texas, South Carolina and other places, including the overuse of solitary confinement and restraints, and insufficient rehabilitation and education.

“Story after story emerging from juvenile systems reveal that agencies around the country don’t have a good handle on how to manage their most challenging youth,” said Michele Deitch, a juvenile justice expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “They’re just throwing up their hands and saying, ‘We’ve exhausted our options. We just don’t know what to do.’”

Louisiana holds about 350 youths, more than 80% of whom are Black, in secure facilities; it has promised for decades to move its lockups toward a more therapeutic model. But like many states, it has failed to fully fund or commit to the new approach. That, combined with a debilitating staff turnover caused by low pay and dangerous conditions, has meant staff members haven’t been properly trained to prevent the violence and chaos that has erupted.