One year after settlement with SPLC, dangerous conditions persist at Forrest County, Miss., juvenile detention center

A year after officials in Forrest County, Miss., reached an agreement with the SPLC to end dangerous conditions at the county’s juvenile detention center, an independent monitor’s report has found they are “significantly behind schedule” – even backsliding in areas of progress.

The SPLC, which sued the county in federal court, is urging officials to comply with the settlement. The report, written by a court-appointed monitor, was filed Nov. 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. It is the third report to the court regarding conditions at the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center.

“It’s unacceptable that children at the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center continue to live in unconstitutional and dangerous conditions,” said Elissa Johnson, staff attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office. “If county officials continue to fail these children, the SPLC will have no choice but to take steps that will compel them to comply with the terms of this agreement.”

The report found the facility has made minimal progress in reaching substantial compliance with the 70 provisions of the agreement reached in October 2011 to settle the SPLC lawsuit. Juvenile justice expert Anne Nelsen’s report noted that to “have achieved so little movement at this point in the monitoring period is concerning.” The agreement included provisions to end excessive use of force and mechanical restraints; to provide adequate medical and mental health care; and to develop educational and rehabilitative programs.

The detention center’s level of compliance has slipped in some areas – including having an adequately trained staff to protect youth from harm and providing access to medical and mental health care and educational programs. The report also found that compliance had slipped in ensuring cells are not over capacity and prohibiting staffers from using profanity in front of the children.

“The issues of the lack of direct staff supervision, inadequate number of staff members on some shifts and the lack of training for staff at the [Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center] have worsened,” she wrote. Nelsen also found there is “still little or no structured, rehabilitative programming for youth.”

She indicated that repeated administration changes and poor communication between the staff and administration have resulted in persistent noncompliance with the terms of the agreement.

“There has been a different Director and Assistant Director at each of my three visits and there does not appear to have been enough, if any, sharing of information between each of those teams of administrators regarding my comments, suggestions and recommendations,” she wrote.

She also raised concerns about the lack of suicide prevention measures, noting that it doesn’t appear that any employee has received such training.

“Two staff members interviewed indicated that they do not know what the suicide prevention procedure is,” she wrote.

The report also found that although records indicate that visual checks of children in their cells are performed every 15 minutes, Nelsen did not see those checks occurring – a sign of a “potentially serious, egregious and potentially fraudulent falsifying of records.”

She also raised concerns about the quality of medical care. Nelsen witnessed youths spending only about three minutes in the doctor’s exam room even though the agreement requires that children at the facility receive a physical exam to identify any medical issues.

“I simply cannot accept they are receiving a full physical exam in three minutes,” Nelsen wrote.

The SPLC brought the federal class action lawsuit in April 2011 after video footage showed youths being beaten, hogtied and slammed into walls by staffers. In addition to the abuse in the video, the facility failed to provide any rehabilitative programs to confined children.