Court monitor: Improvements made, but unsafe conditions persist at Mississippi juvenile facility sued by SPLC

Despite some signs of improvement, a juvenile justice expert’s report shows that the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in Jackson, Miss., still has a long way to go to reverse the “culture of suppression and harm” found at the facility earlier this year.

The second quarterly report by the independent court monitor, who was appointed as part of a court settlement with the SPLC, found that the detention center remains inadequately staffed. It also found that its school is “dysfunctional” and that the teachers and principal “do not see themselves as part of the overall success of the facility.”

The facility is, however, beginning to show compliance in 12 of the 71 provisions of a settlement agreement designed to improve conditions, according to the report by juvenile justice expert Leonard Dixon, filed this week with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. Much of this progress comes from physical improvements to the building and the drafting of policies and procedures.

Dixon’s previous report described Henley-Young as having a “culture of suppression and harm” where “there is very little, if any, rehabilitation, occurring.”

The SPLC sued Hinds County, Miss., in June 2011 after finding that children at Henley-Young were being denied mental health services and subjected to verbal abuse and threats of physical harm by staff members. The lawsuit resulted in the settlement and the appointment of Dixon to monitor the facility’s compliance.

“It is encouraging that there has been some improvement at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, but more work must be done,” said Corrie Cockrell, staff attorney for the SPLC. “Without adequate staffing and training, we continue to be concerned about the safety and well-being of each child held there.”

The report, based on Dixon’s visit to the facility in September, notes that the lack of staffing remains a “major concern” and should be a concern for Hinds County, which operates the facility.

“Without proper staffing, the residents and staff are being neglected,” Dixon wrote. “In part, because staff members are burnt out, the residents are not safe. In this environment there are always short cuts [sic] taken, which could at some point jeopardize the County because it is constantly placing the County at risk of liability and reduces any well developed detention/rehabilitative model.”

Dixon also found a lack of collaboration between the detention center and its school, which is operated by Jackson Public Schools. He recommended a review of the school by an education expert.

“My observations found that the school and facility are at opposite ends of the spectrum as it relates to them being integrated,” Dixon wrote. “From my previous visits and my more focused observation during this visit, the school is dysfunctional.”

He added: “It presently feels as though the facility and the school are two different places.”

The report also said the lack of an organized process to provide youths with medical and mental health care is “an enormous concern.”

Other areas of noncompliance indicated by the report include provisions dealing with the number of hours children are confined to a cell; discipline practices and procedures that incorporate positive behavior interventions and supports; hygiene and sanitation; and access to youth court counselors or attorneys.