06/30/2009

Preliminary Agreement Reached in Miss. Juvenile Detention Center Case

Children and teens at a Mississippi juvenile detention center will no longer be locked in cells all day without reason or forced to sleep on the floor in a squalid, overcrowded facility following an agreement the Southern Poverty Law Center has reached in a federal lawsuit.

The preliminary agreement could help resolve an SPLC lawsuit that described horrendous conditions at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, where officials failed to provide the most basic, constitutionally required services for children and teens.

In separate interviews, youths said they were confined to filthy, insect-infested cells for 23 hours a day. Some cells were so overcrowded that children slept on the floor on thin mattresses that smelled of urine. Most of the youths held at the facility have not been found guilty of any crime and are awaiting court hearings. Many are there for minor offenses and so-called "status offenses" like truancy.

"This agreement is a positive step toward addressing the most disturbing allegations in this case and ensuring the safety of the children at the detention center," said Sheila A. Bedi, SPLC's regional juvenile justice attorney. "We hope to reach a more comprehensive agreement that brings this lawsuit to an end and ensures that children are protected."

The agreement, reached on June 24, forbids any youth from being confined to a cell for 24 hours unless it is a disciplinary measure for youths who pose a serious risk of bodily harm. The same applies to the use of restraints.

The agreement also addresses overcrowding by requiring nonviolent offenders to be moved elsewhere when the detention center reaches 90 percent capacity for more than four days. No more than two people can be confined to a cell and no youth will be allowed to sleep on the floor. Officials also agreed to a specific staff-to-youth ratio at the detention center to ensure safety. The SPLC also will work with the county to identify alternatives to secure detention for youths convicted of low-level offenses.

The SPLC lawsuit was filed April 20 on behalf of children and teens held at the facility and Mississippi Protection and Advocacy Systems, a nonprofit organization with a federal mandate to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Harrison County, Miss., is named as the defendant.

Earlier this month, a federal judge approved an agreement that allowed child advocates to meet with youths held at the facility, review records and monitor conditions at the juvenile jail. The detention center has been operated by a private corporation, the Mississippi Security Police, for more than nine years at an annual cost of $1.6 million.

"This preliminary agreement is an encouraging sign of a commitment to protecting the youth of Harrison County and remedying the problems at the detention center," said Vanessa Carroll, a staff attorney for the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project and counsel for the children.