04/20/2009

SPLC Sues Mississippi County to Stop 'Shocking' Abuse of Children at Detention Center

The Southern Poverty Law Center today filed a federal class action suit to stop the "shockingly inhumane" treatment of children at a juvenile detention center and to force officials to provide sanitary facilities and mental health treatment to young people confined there.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of a 17-year-old boy who, despite attempting suicide while in the facility, has received no mental health treatment. He has been subjected to physical abuse and filthy conditions, and has been forced to sleep on the floor in an overcrowded, insect-infested cell.

The Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Miss., has been operated by a private corporation, the Mississippi Security Police, for more than nine years at an annual cost of $1.6 million.

"It is a travesty that the county has chosen to let a private company profit by neglecting and abusing our children," said Vanessa Carroll, a staff attorney for the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project and counsel for the children.

Most of the children confined at the facility have not been adjudicated guilty of any crime and are awaiting court hearings. Many are there for minor offenses and so-called "status offenses" like truancy.

The lawsuit describes how the county has failed to provide the most basic, constitutionally required services to the plaintiff, known in the suit as D.W.

"Toilets and walls are covered with mold, rust and excrement," the lawsuit says. "Insects have infested the facility, and the smell of human excrement permeates the entire building. Children frequently have to sleep on thin mats that smell of urine and mold. Defendants do not provide children with adequate personal hygiene items."

Children who have been confined there describe assaults by guards, being locked in their cells for 23 hours every day, inadequate medical and mental health care, and widespread infections caused by the filthy conditions.

Marlon, 17, said children are treated like animals at the facility. "I've seen the guards slam kids, mace them and do things they wouldn't even do to their own dog, let alone a human."

D.W. said he was abused even while on suicide watch after he had tried to hang himself with a bed sheet. "A guard choked me from behind and slammed me on the floor," he said. "While that guard held me down, another guard dropped his knee in my neck, slammed my face to the floor and then pushed my face into the concrete. I couldn't breathe."

Mississippi Protection and Advocacy Inc., a congressionally authorized nonprofit organization that enforces the civil rights of people with disabilities, is also a plaintiff in the suit. It is demanding access to the facility, to which it is entitled under federal law.

"This lawsuit demands that Harrison County ensure the safety of children in its custody," said co-counsel Sheila Bedi, SPLC's regional juvenile justice attorney. "But this lawsuit also gives the county a chance to reconsider investing $1.6 million a year in a private, for-profit prison company at the expense of our children. Perhaps now the county will recognize that investing in communities and families is a wiser use of taxpayer dollars."

The lawsuit seeks class action status to protect all children who are currently confined at the detention center as well as those who will be confined there in the future.