My Son Was Incarcerated at 13. Six Years Later, It’s Clear the State Failed Him.

I know for a fact that there’s no one inside the Swanson Center for Youth or the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) looking out for the health and safety of my son. And now, due to the OJJ’s new no-visitation COVID policy, I can’t be there for him, either.

As COVID-19 numbers rise among childrenParents across the country are becoming more concerned about their children. While parents, teachers, lawmakers, and others struggle to keep young people safe amid a rapidly evolving pandemic situation, one group of children is increasingly being overlooked by the care system: the incarceration system. I should know — my son was incarcerated by the state six years ago at the young age of 13 and remains under the OJJ’s “care” at Swanson youth prison in Monroe, Louisiana.

Louisiana has one of the worst youth prison systems in the country. The conditions in youth prisons have become even more inhumane during a pandemic. Swanson, where my son is kept, claimed that they were keeping up with sanitization. But my son was in the hospital with COVID for three month and they refused to give any information about him. Later, I found out that he had difficulty breathing and eating at times. I worry about his health because he told me about mold in the bathrooms, which makes it clear that prison is not safe or clean. I’m sure every parent can understand how traumatizing is for me to not know the state of my child’s health.

Even though the pandemic has made youth prison conditions worse, the abusive treatment has continued since my son was taken to jail. I have seen him black-eyed and bruised during visits and no one has been held responsible. He said that he and the boys from his dorm had to block the doors from other boys from Swanson trying to hurt them. He and his dormmates couldn’t sleep because they were too afraid. The evidence is endless: Louisiana youth prison conditions are unacceptable. COVID-19 was created by the reemergence of abuse and carelessness during the pandemic. outbreaks, and other gross mishandlings from the people who are supposed to be in charge of these young peoples’ safety. It’s no surprise then, that these conditions lead to youth attempting to escape.

Given Swanson’s history of horrific abuse, it’s unfathomable to me that Gov. John Bel Edwards could support rebuilding the prison. These instances of violence or abuse are not reported. The OJJ can then open a new facility to increase their profit. Monroe’s economy is heavily invested in these prisons. But our community deserves better jobs. I have tried to speak with many OJJ officials, including the director at Swanson, but they refuse responsibility for their cruelty and don’t want to reimagine the economy.

While we know for a long period that youth prisons do not work well in keeping communities safer, we continue to waste money on these facilities. State recidivism rates are often as high as 75 percent, there’s no question that youth prisons are not the rehabilitative places they claim to be. There are no GED or mental health programs, job opportunities, skills training, or preparations for life after incarceration. Swanson guards often supervise children, who are often not well-trained to fill staff gaps. These are the same staff who physically abused my son. How are we supposed to talk freely when they’re listening to every word?

Most Americans agree that youth jails are not the solution. Seventy-eight percentA majority of Americans support offering financial incentives to states and municipalities to invest to alternative to youth incarceration. This includes intensive rehabilitation, education, job-training, and community services that allow youth to do their best to help others. We should be putting our well-being first instead of falling on “tough on crime” approaches that disproportionately Black children are more likely to be locked up than their white peers

My son deserves to be protected from abuse, illness, cruelty, and other forms of inhuman treatment. To combat crime and its root causes, young people require mental health services, supportive housing, as well as fair access to education. Swanson, like all youth jails, serves only to punish the kids for their mistakes and not to help them learn. We need to close them down and rebuild our systems in a manner that helps. Actually helps our children.