04/13/2004

Center Seeks Court Access for Imprisoned Youth

JACKSON, Miss. -- The Center today asked a federal court to order a Mississippi juvenile prison to open its doors to advocates wanting to help its young inmates.

Even after the U. S. Department of Justice found pervasive abuse (PDF) at both of Mississippi's juvenile facilities, Columbia Training School continues to conceal its illegal and inhumane treatment of children by making it impossible for them to speak with lawyers. This practice effectively denies Columbia's youth any access to courts to protest the conditions of their confinement.

"Because of this unconstitutional policy, staff members at Columbia are free to abuse their young prisoners with no fear of accountability," said Center lawyer Danielle Lipow, who is handling the case.

The lawsuit, K.L.W. vs. James, (read brief [PDF]) was brought on behalf of a developmentally disabled 14-year old accused of stealing a cell phone. He was adjudicated delinquent after a five-minute hearing in February. During a March visit, his mother was alarmed to see dark bruises circling her son's neck and wrists.

Fearfully, K.L.W. told her that a security guard had choked him, tightly handcuffed him and threatened to increase his sentence if he told anyone.

Recent investigations by the federal government and the Mississippi legislature have shown that K.L.W. is not the only child at risk of harm at Columbia. More than 100 other children share his plight, some as young as 11.

"These are society's most vulnerable kids," said Lipow. "A recent study found that as many of 85 percent of children incarcerated in Mississippi suffer from a mental disorder, compared to fewer than 20 percent of youth in the general population."

Although only 36 percent of Mississippi's population is black, African Americans account for 80 percent of children incarcerated at Columbia Training School.

Lipow and Center attorney Sheila Bedi are working with the Mississippi Center for Justice to overhaul the state's brutal juvenile justice system. This lawsuit is one facet of their efforts, which also include monitoring visits at Oakley, the training school for older boys, as well as extensive advocacy and education work with grassroots community groups and the legislature.