BATON ROUGE, La (BRPROUD) – Leaders at the Office of Juvenile Justice said in a letter addressed to Juvenile Court judges that detention centers across the state have no space left.

“We write to notify you that the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) is at full bed capacity with both our secure and non-secure beds. Many of your local detention centers are holding sentenced youth because OJJ cannot safely place them in a facility or program. OJJ is working diligently to step down or to seek your permission to release youth on parole; however, until OJJ can gain momentum to increase our state bed space, we cannot safely accept more youth into the agency’s custody,” OJJ leaders said in the letter.

Executive Director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Gina Womack said this news came as a surprise.

“I’m the Vice Chair of the Juvenile Justice Reform Implementation Commission and we are there to provide support and help and we did not know the issues that were happening and so they are not forthcoming with the problems that are happening inside under their watch,” Womack said.

OJJ said the overcrowding can be attributed to a number of factors.

In a statement, officials said, “In one year, OJJ has seen a 27% increase in admissions to our secure care facilities—limiting the amount of bed space available throughout the state.  OJJ wants to ensure that we are always in compliance with the Prison Rate Elimination Act (PREA) by keeping those ratios down.

Part of the problem, OJJ leaders say, is that their facilities in Monroe were damaged during a riot.

“OJJ’s 36 bed dormitory in Swanson, Monroe named ‘the Cypress Unit’ was completely destroyed during a youth riot,” the letter from OJJ stated. “OJJ is currently working to do major reconstruction to bring the Cyprus unit back online; however, until OJJ can do so that leaves Louisiana with thirty-six less secure beds.”

“The consistent reasoning is that the children tore up the facility but really I don’t see how that happened if you literally had the adequate staffing ratio and the qualified staff,” Womack said.

Another contributing factor is the housing of youth who will stay for an extensive period of time. OJJ said there are several juveniles in OJJ custody who could legally be released and continue their rehabilitation in a less structured setting.

“In the coming days, OJJ legal division will start filing motions to modify pursuant to LSA – CH. C. Article 898 (B) seeking your approval to modify the dispositions of the use at the agency believe can be safely reintegrated back into the community,” OJJ said to the judges. “We are seeking the consideration to grant these motions as there are no other ways to remove youth from the local detention centers pending placement unless we, for safely, release those youth who qualify for community-based rehabilitation services. Once the state brings online the new 72-bed facility at Swanson and row and completes the repairs of the cypress unit at Swanson Monroe, we believe the state will be in a better position to meet the demands of court order placements. We hope that you will support our agencies efforts to meet the current needs of the state by granting our motions to modify.” 

“We are cautiously optimistic that this dire situation is an opportunity for the Office of Juvenile Justice to take a different approach. It is way past time to stop the flow of Black and brown children into this dehumanizing and damaging system and to send kids home, the majority of whom are in prison for non-violent offenses. It’s also unfortunate that it took a crisis to force the state’s hand,” Womak said in the statement.

BRProud reached out to OJJ for an on-camera interview, but they declined to go into further detail of this situation at this time.