10/19/2009

SPLC Sues Miss. County for Access to Juvenile Detention Facility Criticized as Abusive

The Southern Poverty Law Center today sued Lauderdale County, Miss., to comply with federal law and open the county's juvenile detention center to inspection following reports of children being locked down in unsanitary, overcrowded and abusive conditions.

The SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project is representing Disability Rights Mississippi (DRMS), which monitors conditions in which youth are held and advocates on behalf of children when their rights are violated.

The Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Center has regularly confined children with mental illness in filthy, crowded cells for 23 hours a day, according to the lawsuit. The staff has indiscriminately used mace or pepper spray on children while denying them mental health, medical and educational services.

Despite these reports, the county has refused to allow DRMS — a nonprofit agency with a federal mandate to protect the rights of people with disabilities — to enter the facility, interview children, assess the conditions and work with the county to address these violations. During an Oct. 6 visit to the detention center, two DRMS representatives were met by deputy sheriffs who escorted them off the premises.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division.

"For years, members of the Lauderdale community have tried to work with the county to ensure it's providing appropriate services to children who are detained in the juvenile detention center and to help it create alternatives to jail cells for children," said Christine Henderson, youth advocate for MYJP. "But county officials have refused to cooperate, choosing to put children at risk and expose taxpayers to liability."

A Lauderdale County grand jury and the county's detention monitoring unit have issued reports detailing abusive and unlawful conditions at the facility. Most children detained there have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting youth court hearings.

"It's unfortunate that Lauderdale County chose to litigate over the clearly established right to access the detention center, investigate allegations of abuse and provide protection and advocacy services," said Poonam Juneja, an MYJP attorney. "Nevertheless, we remain hopeful that we can work with the county to protect the children in its custody, reduce unnecessary imprisonment and develop cost-saving and effective alternatives to detention."