Through a combination of legal action and grassroots community efforts, Center attorneys are working to overhaul Mississippi's brutal juvenile justice system.
A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation revealed shocking conditions at Mississippi's "training schools" — the misnomer used to describe the state's inhumane paramilitary prisons for youth. The two facilities, Oakley Training School in Raymond and Columbia Training School in Columbia, house about 550 youths.
Abuses outlined in the 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.
"What the investigation reported is nothing short of torture," said Center legal director Rhonda Brownstein. "These abuses are the kind of things you would hear about in some torture chamber in a Third World country. This is not how we treat our children in the United States."
In August, a federal court granted the Center's request to represent incarcerated children in Morgan vs. Sproat, a decades-old case that resulted in a 1977 court order requiring numerous improvements at Oakley.
Though the ruling was considered a model for the nation, its directives went unheeded by the state, and on December 18, DOJ filed a lawsuit to force the mandated improvements.
Working with the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Center is representing the class of children in Morgan vs. Sproat in an effort not just to improve conditions at both facilities, but also to overhaul the state's juvenile justice system so that children can avoid incarceration altogether. To ensure comprehensive change, Center lawyers are working to include Columbia, the facility for females, in their case.
Like many of the children held at the facilities, Althea Dixon was a first-time, non-violent offender when she was sent to Columbia at the age of 15.
"I went to training school only for running away, due to the situation I had at home. But by the time I got there, I was treated like I had just robbed a bank or killed somebody," said Dixon.
"When you lock up a kid, you're supposed to be giving that kid an opportunity to change their ways and do better. You can't change and do better in an environment like that. When I came out, I came out a whole lot worse."
"This is a very dirty place," one incarcerated youth wrote in a letter to the Center. "Since I have been here, I have seen staff assault cadets for no reason. There's roaches in our food sometimes. ... Please do something about this terrible place."
In addition to meeting with children incarcerated at the facilities, Center attorneys have joined with a wide variety of legal and grassroots organizations to form a coalition called "Derailing the Mississippi Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Train."
The Center hopes to replicate in Mississippi its work with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which successfully used legal action and community awareness to force positive improvements in Louisiana, including shutting down the notorious Tallulah facility.
"In Mississippi, we are working with the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse coalition in the hope of launching a multi-layered attack against this abuse," said Center attorney Grace Graham. "In addition to the litigation, we are partnering with the community to force a change in the way Mississippi deals with juvenile justice."
Youth Get Legal Help
At Columbia Training School, a policy made it nearly impossible for children to speak with attorneys willing to help them. A recent settlement in a case brought by the Center enables youth imprisoned there to now get the legal assistance they need.