04/01/2004

Center Strives To Halt 'Torture' in Juvenile Centers

April 1, 2004 -- In recent years, the Center's legal team has been fighting for the rights of children incarcerated in juvenile prisons across the South.

Lately the focus has been on the children in Mississippi's "training schools." These 10- to 17-year-olds are predominantly black, poor, and suffering from one or more mental or emotional disability. They have been locked up for minor offenses that include running away, skipping school, and underage drinking.

And they are subject to what Center lawyer Danielle Lipow calls "blatant torture."

These young people have been hogtied, shackled to poles, and forced to run with automobile tires around their necks or mattresses on their backs, according to a 2003 report (PDF) issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

There is no rehabilitative value in this sort of "cruel and demeaning" treatment, the Department of Justice concluded.

"When you lock a kid up, you're supposed to be giving a kid an opportunity to change their ways and do better. You can't change ... in an environment like that," said one woman, who was sent to a training school for running away when she was 15.

Center lawyers insist there is a better way to help these youth "change their ways."

"These are children who need mental health services ... education services ... and delinquency prevention programs," said Center lawyer Sheila Bedi. "They do not need jail."

By closing its training schools, the state of Mississippi could devote the money saved to developing these community-based alternatives, which have proven successful in other states.

For the past four months, Bedi has been living in Mississippi to remain on the front lines of this important battle. Partnering with the Mississippi Center for Justice, she has helped push this issue to the forefront of the legislative session, stressing the state's desperate need for reform.

Things have improved since the Center became involved in the situation. But there is still work to be done.

With the help of its supporters, the Center will continue its crucial efforts to ensure the safety and rehabilitation of Mississippi's incarcerated youth.