SPLC Sues Mississippi to Stop Abuse of Girls at Juvenile Prison
The Southern Poverty Law Center today sued the state of Mississippi in federal court to stop the "horrendous" physical and sexual abuse of teenage girls at the Columbia Training School, the state's prison for girls.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, also seeks to force the state to provide federally required mental health and rehabilitative treatment to girls confined at Columbia.
The suit was filed on behalf of six girls ranging in age from 13 to 17. All suffer from mental illness and all were committed to Columbia for non-violent offenses. Most are victims of past physical or sexual abuse.
"Our state must stop sponsoring child abuse," said Sheila Bedi, director of the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project, based in Jackson, Miss. "Girls at Columbia Training School not only are being routinely abused, humiliated and injured, they are being denied the most basic services that the law requires.
"We filed this lawsuit reluctantly after several failed attempts to negotiate with the state. We would much rather see the state's resources go toward caring for our children than defending the indefensible."
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.
The lawsuit alleges that:
• In an apparent response to unsubstantiated allegations that they planned to escape, five of the plaintiffs were shackled for 12 hours a day for periods ranging from eight days to approximately a month. They were required to eat, attend school, use the bathroom, participate in recreational activities and visit with their families while wearing shackles around their ankles. This punitive shackling, which violated Columbia policies, caused excruciating pain and injuries, but their complaints were not heeded.
• One girl was sexually assaulted by a male employee of the facility who kissed and fondled her against her will while she was confined in a segregated area. She reported the assault but was never informed of the results of an investigation and never received counseling to help her deal with the trauma.
• Three of the girls cut themselves while on suicide watch. None of them received any psychological help during their isolation. No attempt was made to stabilize their moods, and staff members failed to perform periodic checks to ensure their safety. One girl was placed in a cell alone for 14 hours, during which time she carved the words "HATE ME" into her forearm. One sliced her wrists with glass, and the other sliced her wrists on the edge of her concrete bunk.
The Columbia Training School has a long history of abusing and failing to care for children in its care. A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation in 2003 revealed shocking conditions at Columbia and Oakley Training School, which houses boys. The abuses included pole-shackling, hog-tying with chains and physical assault by guards. Children with disabilities were routinely denied the mental health, educational and rehabilitative services to which they were entitled.
The state settled a DOJ lawsuit with a consent decree in 2005, but a court-appointed monitor has issued six quarterly reports that document a long list of failures to comply with the settlement. In the most recent report, the monitor noted that reforms have stalled and expressed grave concerns about inadequate health care and suicide prevention.
"It is clear that the state of Mississippi has not taken the steps necessary to transform the Columbia Training School into a facility that can help troubled teenage girls turn their lives around and be productive members of society," Bedi said.
Most of the girls at Columbia suffer from mental disorders or disabilities. And more than six in 10 were sent there for non-violent offenses such as shoplifting, running away, disorderly conduct and other minor offenses. Most could be treated far more effectively – at half the cost – in community-based programs that focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment.
Columbia is a colossal waste of state resources, costing the state $5 million per year to house an average of 60 girls.
Co-counsels in the case are Ira Burnim of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., and Robert B. McDuff, a civil rights attorney in Jackson.
Department of Justice 2003 report
Read the 2003 report on Columbia and Oakley training schools.