On January 12, 2005, a settlement agreement was signed in K.L.W. v. James, a class action filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mississippi Center for Justice to protect children at one of the worst juvenile prisons in the country. The settlement will guarantee that incarcerated children have meaningful access to the court system, and may lead to other litigation designed to improve conditions.
Under the U.S. Constitution, a state must facilitate the rights of incarcerated children to access to the courts. At Columbia Training School in Mississippi, the State had instead created a series of obstacles designed to impede that access. In K.L.W. v. James, Center attorneys filed a class action to challenge those obstacles as violations of children's constitutional rights to access the courts.
A recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found rampant abuse and neglect at both Columbia and Oakley Training School, Mississippi's other juvenile prison. A high-level DOJ official later described Mississippi's juvenile prisons as "clearly the worst two we have seen in probably 20 years."
The DOJ found particularly horrific mistreatment at Columbia, including hog-tying, pole-shackling, and use of mace, practices being addressed in a related case, Morgan v. Sproat. Suicidal youth were sometimes stripped naked and locked in the "Dark Room" — a room with no toilet, ventilation, or lights — for days on end.
The named plaintiff in the Center's case was K.L.W., a developmentally disabled 14-year-old who was assaulted by a security guard at Columbia. On a visit with her son at Columbia in March 2004, K.L.W.'s mother was alarmed to see dark bruises circling her son's neck and wrists. When she heard what had happened, she called Columbia to set up a meeting for her son with a Center attorney.
The superintendent told her to get a court order and hung up on her; SPLC filed suit in April 2004. After several months of litigation, Mississippi has agreed to a very favorable settlement.
Under the settlement, the state is required to:
- Tell children that they have a constitutional right to ask for help from a lawyer;
- Help children make legal requests;
- Ensure that the requests are delivered; and
- Abandon its original policy of requiring a court order before a lawyer was allowed to respond to a child in trouble.
The state's new policies go into effect immediately. Southern Poverty Law Center staff expect to begin visiting children at Columbia in February 2005.
The K.L.W. v. James settlement is an important victory for children locked up in Mississippi, but it does not address the rampant abuse, poor medical care, and inadequate educational services in the training schools. Until those problems are resolved, the Southern Poverty Law Center will continue to fight for Mississippi's children in the courtroom and in the Mississippi legislature.
Mississippi Center for Justice