The shackling of teenage girls at a Mississippi juvenile prison has shocked state officials and prompted calls for immediate closure of the facility. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorneys first exposed the incident in a letter demanding that officials investigate and immediately rectify abuses, unsafe conditions and violations of federal law at Columbia Training School, the state's juvenile prison for girls.
News of the shackling outraged advocates working for reform of the state's juvenile justice system, and legislators held a special hearing yesterday to hear testimony about the abuses at Columbia. Prior to the hearing, students, parents and activists from across the state gathered on the Capitol steps to rally for the rights of Mississippi's incarcerated children and to demand the closure of the state's two juvenile prisons.
A 16-year-old girl, formerly held at Columbia and one of the girls shackled last month, told the House Juvenile Justice Committee that guards asked teens for sexual favors and shared cigarettes with them. She witnessed a guard spraying one student with pepper spray during an argument and saw guards sharing state cell phones with teens wanting to call friends.
In May, eight adolescent girls were shackled, some for more than a week and one nearly a month, because another student falsely reported that the girls planned to escape. The girls suffered bruises from tripping while shackled as well as blisters and cuts on the back of their feet. They were forced to wear the shackles 12 hours a day and were freed only when they slept or showered.
Eventually, the girl who claimed an escape was planned admitted the story was made up, and the shackled girls were released. None ever received any type of hearing to determine the truth of the claim.
At yesterday's hearing, Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Jackson, questioned whether shackles were necessary to prevent girls from escaping at an institution with 127 employees and only 33 inmates.
In a June 4 letter to the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS), Sheila Bedi, director of the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP), described the shackling and outlined a litany of additional problems at Columbia, gleaned from a series of confidential interviews with several girls confined there.
Bedi wrote a follow-up letter on June 11 to a DHS lawyer, detailing her concerns about unnecessary use of restraints and inadequate mental health treatment at Columbia.
"From our interviews, it is apparent that Columbia has failed to protect girls from harm and has repeatedly violated girls' constitutional rights," she said.
The girls described to the SPLC a wide range of abuses by Columbia staffers, including:
• Allowing dangerous conditions that enable suicidal girls to harm themselves;
• Failure to provide mental health services to suicidal children in a timely manner;
• Verbal abuse and staff indifference;
• Denial of family contact when a girl's counselor is on vacation;
• Punishment of girls for refusing to attend three mandatory church services a week; and,
• Sleep deprivation by never turning lights off in the girls' sleeping quarters.
One particularly disturbing incident was the sexual assault of one girl by three others in her cottage. The assault occurred on a Saturday, and Columbia staffers were told about it the following Monday. But the assaulted girl did not get a pelvic exam until Tuesday. She was never taken to a hospital.
Removed from her cottage, ostensibly for her own protection, the assaulted girl has not spoken with her mother for many weeks. Columbia staffers, including a doctor, told her it was better if her mother didn't know what had happened to her.
After learning of the recent shackling, the Mississippi DHS launched a formal investigation, and some Columbia administrators were suspended.
Columbia and Oakley Training School, which houses boys, have operated under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) since 2005, when the state settled lawsuits dealing with widespread physical abuse of youths. A DOJ investigation in 2003 revealed shocking conditions at the two facilities.
Abuses outlined in the DOJ report included pole-shackling, hog-tying with chains and physical assault by guards. During military exercises, children were sprayed with chemicals to make it more difficult for them to breathe and forced to eat their own vomit if they became sick after hours of exertion and heat exposure.
Under the consent decree, a court-appointed monitor has issued quarterly reports on reforms at the schools that document a long list of failures. In the most recent report, the monitor noted that reforms have stalled and expressed grave concerns about inadequate health care and suicide prevention.
Bedi said that while she is encouraged that Mississippi officials responded rapidly to the recent abuses, the problems are the same kinds of violations that the DOJ found in 2003.
"I believe it's reflective of the culture in these facilities," she said. "It's a culture in which children are treated like criminals and are not valued. In many ways, they've given up on rehabilitating these kids."
Bedi said the training schools are dangerous to children and a terrible waste of resources. She described them as "state-funded child abuse," with taxpayers paying $600 per day, per child, to house them there.
Bedi and the MYJP have accomplished many of their juvenile justice reform goals in recent years, but they are still working to close the state's two juvenile prisons.
"Let's hope this incident gets the state out of its complacency," Bedi said.
"I thought the reform was headed in the right direction," said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, chair of the Juvenile Justice Committee, during yesterday's hearing. "I guess we're a long ways away."