The state of Louisiana is considering transferring at least 20 minors incarcerated in its juvenile correction system to be housed on death row. The state alleges these children are amongst its most problematic incarcerated minors, and that placing them on death row is in line with government obligations to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. Lana Charles, who has worked to provide arts programs in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system for 15 years, joins Rattling the Bars to explain the situation of incarcerated youth in her state.
Luliana “Lana” Charles has worked with youth for over 15 years in the capacity of the arts, enrichment and cultural programming and the juvenile justice system. Lana is a social worker and trained artist, and a member of PAIMI Advisory Council and Louisiana Human Trafficking Prevention Commission and Advisory Board. She also serves as board chair at The Beautiful Foundation.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. As always, I update everyone on Eddie Conway’s state. Eddie Conway is making a remarkable recovery, and at some point in time, we expect him to make a cameo appearance on the show that he created and the network that he loved.
It was a recent report that Louisiana State was considering, or are in process or have, sent juveniles to Angola Prison in Louisiana to have them housed on death row. According to the state of Louisiana, the reason behind this is these are considered the most problematic youth in the juvenile system. Here to talk about this and some of the social ramifications of what’s going on with our youth is Lana Charles, a social worker from Louisiana. Ms. Charles, introduce yourself to the Rattling the Bars audience.
Lana Charles: My name is Lana Charles, and I’m a social worker in New Orleans, Louisiana. I work with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights on the Children’s Defense scene.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Now let’s just go right into the subject matter. All right. In Louisiana, the law says, child code, and I think this might be considered its preamble, maintain a safe environment for youth. It says, youth and residential and secure care facilities have the same rights. It is the state’s duty to act as a parent to the youth placed in custody. It says that, according to the Child’s Code, Article 801, in those instances when a child is removed from the control of his parent, the court shall secure him, care as nearly as possible equivalent to that which his parents should have given him. It says, according to the state, in the interest of the state, the purpose of incarcerating a juvenile is treatment and rehabilitation. Due process requires that the conditions and program must be reasonably related to that purpose.
In terms of what’s going on in Louisiana with our youth, and maybe you can update us on whether or not this is actually taking place. There was a report that came out a couple of months ago that said that the state of Louisiana was in the process of sending at least 20 youth to Angola Prison and having them housed on death row. The reason behind this is allegedly these are the most problematic youth in the juvenile facilities, and can’t be managed by the juvenile facility. To your knowledge, has this taken place, or can you give our audience an update on what is going on with this?
Lana Charles: Yes, for sure. Obviously this is a very serious concern that we have as social justice advocates, especially for the youth of our city, who are mostly Black youth, who are being sent to Angola. It’s an outrage, definitely. According to the law, the juvenile justice system is supposed to be committed to rehabilitation and treatment of children, no matter what. So however, according to what is actually happening, particular kids in custody, they’re not receiving this rehabilitation. We know that youth who enter the system are some of the most vulnerable youth in our communities who experience significant trauma. Unfortunately, youth in juvenile prisons are experiencing punishment, and not rehabilitation or treatment. So especially at the new facilities, OJJ, which is the Office of Juvenile Justice, has recently created, including Angola, they’re resembling adult prisons, where these kids are staying. Also at St. Martinville, which is another OJJ facility.
So there’s limited treatment and programming, and kids are locked in cells, they’re shackled. It resembles an adult prison. Imagine what that does for the young mind. A former incarcerated youth mentioned this when he testified at the state Capitol for the House Bill 746, which is to restrict the use of juvenile solitary confinement. This young youth, he’s 21 years old right now. He quotes, “See, when you in jail, the only thing you got is your mind. So what you transform into is based on your environment and the influence around you.” So this is what’s happening right now in New Orleans, in Louisiana, in our state of Louisiana. The system and principle is to provide public safety and accountability. It’s far from how it is implemented. Instead, it’s a mechanism to keep people oppressed forever.
Mansa Musa: Yeah. Yeah.
Lana Charles: And our young people, at that. So the large difference between the goal of the system and the reality that is actually happening now is a real problem here for kids and our community as a whole.
Mansa Musa: To dial down on that, when I was researching this, I noticed that in one voice they’re talking about in theory that they’re supposed to be providing rehabilitation and treatment, but in application, some of the juvenile facilities that now exist are just about as big as Angola. In your experience and in working in Louisiana in particular, in general, has it been your experience that… Is the attitude of the state just like Draconian when it comes to our children? Do they not get it that we’re talking about young minds and impressionable minds that need to be treated as children as opposed to being treated as adults? Because it looks like once you get in the juvenile system, then the system is set up such that you are going to be treated as an adult in that system until they ultimately graduate you to an adult facility. Has that been your experience? That the attitude of the state is, when it comes to understanding the mentality of the juvenile, is it a disconnect to your knowledge?
Lana Charles: It’s definitely a disconnect. I think that the right people are not in position to make these major decisions for youth and for our communities. It’s sort of blatant attitude in a way. There’s so much research out there that’s provided that no one is really paying attention to. It’s like it’s non-relevant information, so that’s disappointing. That’s upsetting, that the voices, the research that is out there is not being heard and listened to. It’s like a slap in the face or a hand in the face. The main point is that kids should be treated like kids. Jail is not developmentally appropriate, and can and does inflict further trauma. That’s common sense. It’s common sense in life, period. And these are children.
These are children who are still developing. They are impressionable, at that, and they’re being sent to these facilities like St. Martinville and Angola. They’re living in cells rather than dorms. This means kids who are placed there, they’re in cells alone for a large portion of their day, and practically shackled, only being released outside of their cell to shower. Like showering is an activity. It’s a necessity, it’s not an activity.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Lana Charles: So this is truly the outrageous things that are happening right now. That is, it’s out of reach it seems for the powers that be, who should be well equipped enough to understand the ramifications of these outcomes and these things that are being put forth for our youth.
Mansa Musa: To go back to a point you made, we’re talking about children and that the mind’s not developed. The Supreme Court came out, and recognized that children don’t have the state of mind to commit certain crimes. Even though the crime called for a certain minimum intent, but the Supreme Court then came out and said, well, children don’t have that, what they call mental right state of mind to be able to do that.
But let me ask you this here: who is responsible for when they’re evaluating and doing intake on our youth? Because if the reality is that most of these children come from traumatic environments, if not all of them, this is a fact that single parents, abusive environments, and even according to their own child code it says that once this child is turned over to the state then, in theory, the state should take the attitude of adopting the child as a parent. The way our children are being treated in juvenile facilities, this is, in every sense of the word, child abuse. From your understanding, who is responsible for doing intake and communicating the mental concern or the mental considerations that need to be factored into when dealing with our children?
Lana Charles: Well, there’s many players at play here. When a youth goes into the juvenile facilities, there are medical and mental health professionals that are there. Even before they hit the medical and mental health professionals, there are intake professionals that are supposed to be gathering collateral information about this youth and determining what a treatment plan will look like –
Mansa Musa: That’s right. That’s right.
Lana Charles: …When we have no treatment plan for them. So it does not seem like that is being done, to be quite honest with you. Or if it is being done, it’s not effective. It’s not based on research and the best evidence that there is out there for juvenile justice systems. So those are the people that are seeing the kids initially and who are creating these plans. It doesn’t seem like there are any plans that are being created, to be quite honest with you. Especially when we’re meeting with our kids to see how their day is and if they’re going to school, if they’re speaking to their families regularly enough, if their mental health is being taken care of, if they’re getting their medication, vitamins, going to appointments for eye exams, for teeth, for dentist’s work or whatever it may be. It’s not what we would do as caring parental adults to our own children. So there’s many responsibilities that are out there that may not be taken totally seriously, and being accountable for your role in this industry.
Mansa Musa: We recognize that when you’re dealing with young minds and itemizing, I served 48 years in prison prior to getting out. Matter of fact, yesterday I’ve been out of prison all of three years. But I recognize that period of time that I went through and the mental impact that it had on me, emotional impact that had upon my release, I had to do some internal work. I was doing internal work while I was in, but my mind at some point in time got developed. But now we’re talking about kids who you lock them in a cell, your attitude is that they know that the environment they’re in is punitive. So they know that they’re not in an environment that’s not punitive. So you put them in a punitive environment. Why do you think the state expects them to act any other way than they acting if you create this hostility towards them? Do the state just don’t get it?
Lana Charles: I think there’s multiple things at play, and multiple people at play, and they are not working together on one accord. That’s the biggest issue. I think that there’s definitely different stakeholders within this system, including us as juvenile public defense. We are there to present what the issues are, but on the other end, we need those who are receiving it and hearing it and understanding it and who is willing to make those changes. A lot of times, it has to do with money.
Mansa Musa: I knew it was going there. That’s the root of all evil.
Lana Charles: Yes, with investments –
Mansa Musa: Right. That’s right.
Lana Charles: What are we investing in? Do we want to just invest in putting them into jail and letting them sit there and rot? Or are we going to try to give some more money to these community organizations that could help deliver what we need, those changes that we need, and provide them that trauma-informed care. So rather than providing that extensive treatment and rehabilitation, the OJJ, the facilities that they rely on punitive measures, rather, like cells and restrictions, punishment. You do wrong, you get punished. That’s it. But again, these are children.
We all do wrong as children, but we have to learn a lesson. We learn the lesson the way that is more fitting for the person and for the community. So when you continue to punish a child who doesn’t know or have the skills or the tools to change or to do things differently, then you are going to get the same outcome, the same outcome over and over again.
So from research, we know the most successful model for juvenile programming is to provide mental health treatment –
Mansa Musa: Mental health, that’s right. That’s right.
Lana Charles: …Trauma-informed care.
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Lana Charles: Yes, trauma informed care to youth, not punishment. Instead, what we are getting is, you get locked up in your cell for the majority of the day. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear you. Your interactions are limited, and there’s limited engagement with activities and to help the child grow mentally, physically, emotionally, and to build healthier relationships. That is the moment right there. If you want to rehabilitate and have a better community, why not give them what they need?
Mansa Musa: Do y’all have any allies in the state legislation that really understands this and are willing to sponsor back and endorse alternatives? Because, as you say, this is about mental health. You not going to physically change these children. The only thing you going to do is they either going to become more hardened, or they going to have a broken spirit. At any rate, they not going to be an asset to the community. They’re not going to be an asset to nobody. The way it looks, it’s almost as if they saying, well, if we ignore them and we treat him with all this brutality and hostility, they’ll be the next one up in Angola prison. They’ll be the next one on the death row. They’ll be the next one to commit. We can wait on the juvenile and turn them into adult. Do you have any allies in the state legislature anywhere outside of the community-based organizations that’s willing to give voice to this problem?
Lana Charles: Yes. Yes we do. We definitely do have allies on that level, on a legislative level.
Mansa Musa: What kind of legislative bills or directions are being taken in terms of trying to reverse this? Maybe you can update us on the Angola thing, because when I was reading it and I was doing the research on it, this in and of itself is traumatic. I don’t care how brave I appear to be as a kid, I don’t care how unruly I am as a child, when you tell me that and you threaten me and say, yeah, we getting ready to send you to Angola. We getting ready to send you to death row. I don’t care what I present, it’s traumatic. It’s going to be traumatic for me, the uncertainty of where I’m going to go or where I’m going to be confronted with is really going to compound my trauma. So can you update us on one, what’s going on with that, and two, what type of legislation is being introduced to try to change this mindset of the Louisiana Juvenile System?
Lana Charles: Yes. We recently had House Bill 746 pass with a supportive legislative –
Mansa Musa: Can you give us an overview of what that entails?
Lana Charles: Yeah. So House Bill 746 was created to restrict this solitary confinement use. It requires OJJ, which is the Office of Juvenile Justice, to swiftly inform the parents and the attorneys of solitary confinement use, and requires the agency to record and track its use. Because before, that wasn’t happening, and youth would be in solitary confinement and we would not even be aware of it. So that would be the most recent legislative activity in regards to changing that, changing that type of behavior on that level, and hoping for the best, that that could change some outcomes with the youth that are being housed in these facilities.
Mansa Musa: In terms, what is your organization doing, or give us a little bit of information about what your organization do?
Lana Charles: Yeah. Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, we are a public defense office, and we provide legal representation to youth that are coming through the juvenile justice system. With that, we operate on a holistic model. It not only consists of attorneys, but it also has social workers like myself and youth advocates. The youth advocates are the ones who are out there in the community doing the real work, being with the children and mentoring the children and assessing and figuring out next steps along with the assistance from social workers. We have investigators that are on the defense team as well. So our main goal is to provide that zealous advocacy work, that footwork. The type of work that lots of people are limited in doing, we take it and go for it. We go out there and do our thing for the youth and we are directed by the youth and the parents.
And in order to make sure that whatever it is that we are trying to get them through and to, it’s something that they want to do. It’s something that they could do if they have the capacity to do so. You have to be an equal player within the treatment plan. You have to be an equal player. You can’t force it down people’s throats on what we think is needed, because everybody’s lives are different. So that is what we try to provide to our client base and their parents within this juvenile justice public defense sector.
Mansa Musa: One last question. In terms of the parents and the parents of the children, what has been their reaction to what’s going on with their children? Because a parent can not have the ability to deal with their child, so they think by turning them over to the state, the child will get the necessary treatment that will help the parent better manage their child. That’s just oftentimes, that’s just the reality.
I remember hearing a friend of mine, he was a counselor, and he was in court. The parent came into court and said, look, take my child. I can’t do nothing with him. I’m asking you to do something with my child to help so my child won’t wind up dead or wind up in prison. So most of the time, parents look to these institutions and think that these institutions are going to really be genuine in terms of what I just read, the preamble, be the surrogate parent and treat the child as if they were the parent. But this parent, the institution, is definitely inflicting child abuse. What about the parents? You mentioned involving parents in the decision-making. What do you say about the parents?
Lana Charles: So the parents, they need help, and they may try to get that help with the court. That’s alarming that you would have to go to court in order to get the help that you need within your community. But that is the mindset, that the court will solve it. This is how we get what we need within the community. But not so. That’s not truly how you get what you need, by going through the court system. Because it’s so evident here in our community in New Orleans, there’s not enough front-end investment in kids. If we did have that, likely the parents won’t be showing up at court saying, lock up my kids. Right?
So there has been little to no investment in kids before kids are exposed to the system. So the parents are doing as much as they can. And not all parents, it’s not everybody’s experience. I don’t want to say it’s everybody’s experience. But for those who need the extra assistance, it’s a requirement that we make more investments in the kids, in the community. So we gotta get ahead of the exposure and make initial investments in our kids, got to get ahead of the game.
So once a child enters the system, there is an investment. It’s just in security, not rehabilitation. The investment is in punishment and not rehabilitation. So at this point, we are trying to make due of a crisis that’s out of hand. It’s all out of hand at this point. So in New Orleans, the investment is less than $1 per day for children. That’s alarming.
Mansa Musa: That’s crazy.
Lana Charles: That is alarming. Yeah.
Most of our kids are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders. Our Orleans Parish School System reported that 60% of their students, the children, have PTSD and are 4.5 times more likely than their peers nationwide to show signs of serious emotional disturbance. So lots of our kids are living life with these events that have happened within their lives and not getting the support that they need in the community or right along with their parents. So it’s like, where are we investing our money?
Mansa Musa: Therein lies is the problem, because if you invest the money into the community and you create the network, such as dealing with y’all and other organizations that’s grassroots organizations out there dealing with social conditions and changing attitudes, then the parent would be less likely to rely on the establishment and law enforcement and this brutal system to change their child, because they would see the lack of investment. So this is where the problem lies at. The state of Louisiana, all states are investing in the prison-industrial complex, the preschool prison-industrial complex, the juvenile institution, the adult prison-industrial complex, the major facilities.
But Lana, you have the last word on it. What do you want to tell our audience, and what do you want our audience to take away from these events that’s going on in Baton Rouge and in Louisiana, and in general?
Lana Charles: In general, yes. I think that there’s just too little attention paid to trauma and the causes of behavior. The youth who enter the juvenile system are the most vulnerable kids in our communities. So instead of getting the support that they need, they’re often deprived of necessary care and education and those attachments that they need with their families, which we know it’s critical to their rehabilitation. So that would be something that needs to change, definitely needs to change. We need to be more trauma-informed mindset, think with that in mind, that that is the necessary need. And not take it lightly with past experiences.
For an adult, an adult may be able to fall on the ground, pick up, and go about they business. But a child cannot do that, and it’s important for us to not see them as adults or mini adults, they’re children. You may feel like they’re adults by the situations that they’re putting themselves into, but that’s only because of the environment that they’re living in. That’s because of the community that is around them, that is surrounding them. They’re being influenced by that. So it’s important for an adult to realize and not get confused by roles. You have to remember, these are children. And don’t hold them accountable in a sense where you can’t hold yourself accountable.
We’re the ones in charge. We’re the ones that have the capacity, the money, the opportunities to make changes happen. So with all of that authority that we do have, we have to utilize it a little bit better. We have to come together and get away with the bureaucracy of all of this that has been going on. So that would be my parting advice.
Mansa Musa: There you have it, the real news, saving our children. We’re talking about children here, 10-year-olds and upward. We’re not talking about adults. As Ms. Charles just outlined, an adult can pick themselves up off the ground, make the mental adjustment, and keep it moving. A child is scarred for life. When you take a child that just needs to be given some sympathy and understanding and be empathetic towards, when you take a child and belittle them and lock them up and put them in shackles, isolate them, and expect them to act any other way than inhuman or savage or whatever way you characterize them after they’ve been subjected to this, then something wrong with you for even thinking that you treat them like this here and they going to come out any other way than the way that they come out of.
We have a moral obligation. This is not a social obligation, we have a moral obligation to take care of our children. If we do this to children anywhere else in the world, this country would be calling it child abuse. This country would be up in arms about the way children are being treated. If you sold pictures of children being shackled to a bed or talking about sending children to a concentration camp or DACA or Auschwitz at this time and day, everybody would be in an uproar. But we’re talking about the same type of mentality of treating our children the same way.
Thank you, Lana, for coming in and educating our audience on this, and enlightening us about the tragedy that’s taking place and that’s being inflicted on our children in Louisiana. Thank you very much.
Lana Charles: Thank you so much for having me.
Mansa Musa: We want to encourage everyone to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. As you’ve seen, this is the real news. You’re not going to get this kind of insight from nowhere else in major news networks. Nobody going to come and tell you about the children being abused. Nobody going to come and tell you about misappropriation of monies that could go towards curbing this problem. Nobody going to come and tell you about how this is basically premeditated on the part of the state. Nobody going to tell you this but us. We ask that you continue to support us and continue to make contributions and donations to The Real News and Rattling the Bars. Thank you.