09/03/2008

SPLC: Conditions at Mississippi Youth Prison Violating Court Agreement

 

Three years after Mississippi agreed to stop the abuse and neglect of children detained at its youth prisons, a new report has found that students at Oakley Training School are being housed in a crumbling facility lacking the staff and planning needed to ensure safety, prevent suicide and address serious mental health issues.

The findings are included in a recent report by court monitors who inspected the Oakley Training School to determine whether the state is meeting the conditions of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"This report confirms that Oakley Training School is still a place where children are warehoused, traumatized and brutalized in an environment that greatly diminishes their chances of rehabilitation and success when they rejoin their communities," said Bear Atwood, director of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP), a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"The children at Oakley are counting on the new leadership in the Department of Human Services to take immediate action to remedy these longstanding problems."

The consent decree with the Justice Department came after a 2003 department study found shockingly inhumane conditions at Columbia and Oakley. In addition to being hog-tied and left for days in pitch-black cells, children ages 10 to 17 were sometimes sprayed with chemicals during mandatory exercises and forced to eat their own vomit. Others were forced to run with automobile tires around their necks or mattresses on their backs.

Overall, the monitors' report found that Mississippi is in "substantial compliance" with only 10 percent of the provisions of the consent decree, a decline from the 15 percent compliance rate in the previous monitors' report issued in March. The latest report determined the state has been stagnant on 80 percent of the provisions — showing neither progress nor decline.

Among the report's findings:

Oakley does not have adequate supervisory or direct care staff to ensure the safety of children there. The monitor noted that, "Youth and staff are still afraid for their safety because there is little or no control on the Oakley campus, [and] this was evident during my visit."

Oakley is not in substantial compliance with any of the nine provisions related to suicide prevention. Its staff does not have any emergency intervention training on how to respond to suicide attempts.

The Division of Youth Services has not developed and implemented a suicide prevention policy.

There is no policy or procedure at Oakley in place to provide for the transfer of youths with serious mental illness to appropriate settings to meet their needs. The mental health care training for direct care staff at Oakley was described as "woefully inadequate."

The training school's lack of staff raises concerns that it will never reach an acceptable level of compliance to ensure children are protected from harm.

Oakley is in a general state of disrepair that includes backed-up toilets, broken doors and furniture. The report recommended that all of these areas should be immediately addressed.

Most of the monitors toured the facility during the first week of June. Some of the monitors did not make a full assessment of Columbia Training School, the state's prison for girls, because of its planned closure and transfer of its students to Oakley. The closure came in response to a lawsuit filed by MYJP on behalf of teenage girls who were subjected to abuse and neglect.