04/06/2006

Violations Continue at Mississippi Training Schools

Nearly a year after Mississippi officials promised to improve conditions at two state training schools, a federal court monitor reported few if any changes have actually been made.

In a report covering Aug. 1 to Dec. 15, 2005, court monitor Joyce Burrell documented Oakley and Columbia training schools' failure to comply with nearly every component of a settlement agreement reached in May last year. The review of the two facilities by a court-appointed monitor is part of the settlement agreement.

The settlement was the result of a Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit against the state over conditions at the two training schools. The suit stemmed from a 2003 DOJ study that 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. Other youth were forced to run with automobile tires around their necks or mattresses on their backs.

SPLC lawyers filed K.L.W. v. James in April 2004 to gain access to youth held at Columbia. Previously only attorneys approved by local courts were allowed access to youth -- effectively denying them meaningful representation.

The latest report was the second since the 2004 settlement. Both reports revealed Mississippi's children are still at risk for injury and neglect when placed in Oakley or Columbia. Specific violations documented by the monitor included:

  • reports of verbal and physical abuse by staff against youth;
  • neglected sanitation and care of the facilities, resulting in an unsafe environment;
  • inadequate medical and dental care;
  • noncompliance with mental health treatment and suicide prevention measures (students not adequately screened and staff not informed about mental health policies); 
  • serious violations in facilities' provisions for adequate educational services, especially special education services.

Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP) co-director Ellen Reddy said the report is a sad reminder of how the state's most vulnerable children continue to be neglected, despite strong efforts to help them.

"At best, the training schools do nothing but warehouse children. At worst, our children experience gross abuse and neglect when sent away from their home communities," said Reddy.

"How can the legislature continue to fund Oakley and Columbia when these training schools do such damage to our children and are such a liability to our state?"

Despite the recent report, Mississippi has made substantial progress in improving its juvenile justice system since SPLC launched the Mississippi Juvenile Justice Initiative in 2003.

Just a week after the court monitor's report, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to fund community-based services for juvenile offenders and reform the state's juvenile justice system -- a major success in the Center's ongoing campaign to overhaul the state's brutal juvenile justice system.

Despite the progress, Mississippi youth advocates say there is substantial work to be done.

"Almost one year after the settlement agreement, I would have expected significant improvements at the training schools," said Tessie Schweitzer, director of Mississippi Families as Allies for Children's Mental Health. "The Department of Human Services must do better by our children."