Children at Louisiana’s Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville were held in long-term solitary confinement, shackled with leg irons, and denied education and treatment, according to an investigative report from The Marshall Project.
Reporters reviewed dozens of interviews, photos, video footage, hundreds of pages of incident reports, emergency response logs, emails, and education records about the high-security facility, a 24-cell jail leased from the St. Martin Parish sheriff last summer to hold children in individual cells following a wave of violence and escapes from other juvenile facilities.
Solitary confinement for children has been widely condemned by medical experts and international human rights agencies, who point to studies finding it leads to depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and puts children at increased risk of suicide. Louisiana itself caps solitary confinement at 12 hours in most cases and seven days for “highly disruptive” behavior.
But TMP found that children at St. Martinville, including some with serious mental illness, were locked alone in their cells for at least 23 hours a day for weeks on end.
“You’re in your cell all day,” said Rashad, who was 15 when he arrived at St. Martinville last summer after joyriding in a stolen car. He had only a thin bedsheet and state-issued clothes—no socks, and no books, paper, or pencils.
No education was provided for months. Not until December 17—after the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights filed a complaint with the state education department about the lack of instruction—did the Louisiana Special School District, which provides services to children with disabilities in state facilities, begin providing services at St. Martinville, TMP reported. Reporters found that classes still fall short of the six hours of daily instruction required by Louisiana law.
When they were let out of their cells, children were shackled with handcuffs and leg irons. They received their meals through slots in the doors. Guards slammed door hatches on the children’s hands, and one struck a boy with his knee and fired pepper spray into his cell, leaving the child coughing and vomiting, according to incident reports TMP obtained through public records requests.
At least two of the children held at St. Martinville harmed themselves so badly that they required medical attention, TMP found.
Conditions got even worse after kids began using pieces of broken beds and light fixtures to carve out holes in the walls so they could escape. “These kids were in their cells with no beds on a concrete floor with a state-issued green mattress — flame retardant — a blanket and a sheet and nothing else. No light. No nothing,” a former staffer told TMP. “Feces were being thrown every single day, multiple times a day. Not a surface in those pods has not had feces on it.”
At a hearing in Rashad’s case in October, TMP reports the judge was shocked to hear that he was being held in solitary confinement and wasn’t receiving court-ordered services including education, substance abuse counseling, and prescribed medication. The judge held the Office of Juvenile Justice in contempt of court and ordered Rashad’s immediate release.
Some children are now allowed out of their cells during the day, TMP found, but shackling and some isolation have continued amid assaults and fights in recent months.
Louisiana incarcerates about 350 children in secure facilities like St. Martinville, according to TMP, and more than 80% are Black.
State Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans), who chairs the juvenile justice oversight commission, filed a bill that would restrict the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities to four hours at a time, require authorities to promptly notify the youth’s parents and attorney, and require the juvenile justice agency to track its use.
And a state auditor’s investigation into the use of solitary in state facilities prompted by the 2019 suicides of two children held in solitary confinement at a youth facility in Ware, Louisiana, is ongoing, TMP reports.
Meanwhile, the children most in need of services instead face the often irreversible harm of solitary confinement.
Rebecca McDonald’s 16-year-old son was caught stealing a car and sent to St. Martinville, where she said he told her: “I’m not getting any kind of mental stimulation. I can’t even talk to you. I’m going crazy.”
After he was involved in an escape that resulted in new charges, TMP reports, officials stopped letting him out of his cell, he said. As of late February, he had been held in solitary confinement for at least a month, according to his mother.
“He needs somewhere that can help him mentally, that can set him up with some schooling, that he can accomplish something. Not fend for yourself,” Ms. McDonald told TMP. “He’s 16 years old, he’s been in a lot of trouble. He needs someone to set him on the right path… If they don’t teach them anything else, they won’t learn anything else.”