01/21/2005

Imprisoned Youth Get Legal Access Under Court Settlement

HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Children held in one of the nation's worst juvenile prisons now have access to legal assistance after the recent settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit brought by the Center, K.L.W. v. James.

Columbia Training School inmates endured repeated abuse — shackled to poles, hog-tied for hours and confined for days at a time in a pitch-black cell known as "the dark room" — but were unable to protest their conditions in any meaningful way.

Under the settlement, lawyers seeking to improve juvenile justice in Mississippi can visit children to discuss their treatment. Previously, only attorneys approved by local juvenile courts were allowed on the training school grounds.

Center lawyers, working with the Jackson-based Mississippi Center for Justice, filed K.L.W. v. James in April 2004 to gain access to Columbia inmates as part of their effort to overhaul Mississippi's brutal juvenile justice system. The Center also represents children held at Oakley Training School, the state's other juvenile prison in Morgan v. Sproat.

"This is an important victory for children locked up in Mississippi," said Center attorney Danielle Lipow. "But the settlement does not address the rampant abuse, poor medical care and lack of educational services in the training schools. Until those problems are resolved, we will continue to fight for Mississippi's children in the courtroom and in the Mississippi legislature."

A 2003 report (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found shockingly inhumane conditions at Columbia and Oakley, where inmates were not only hot-tied and shackled to poles, but also assaulted by staff members and sometimes sprayed with chemicals to limit their ability to breathe during mandatory exercises. A high-level official at DOJ spokesman described the Mississippi facilities as "clearly the worst two we have seen in probably 20 years."

The Center brought the lawsuit against the state on behalf of K.L.W., a developmentally disabled 14-year-old at Columbia. On a visit with her son, K.L.W.'s mother was shocked to see dark bruises around her son's neck and wrists. During the visit, K.L.W. told her that a security guard had choked him, handcuffed him tightly and threatened to increase his sentence if he told anyone.

When K.L.W.'s mother called the prison to arrange a visit for her son with Center lawyer Sheila Bedi, the administrator told her to get a court order and hung up on her.

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. Center staff expect to begin visiting children at Columbia in February.

In addition to litigation, the Center's juvenile justice work includes extensive legislative advocacy and public education work with grassroots community groups.