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Report: ‘culture of suppression and harm’ at Mississippi juvenile facility

Despite a settlement agreement to end the abusive conditions at Mississippi’s largest juvenile detention facility, a court monitor's report shows that officials at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center have failed to meet even one of the agreement’s 71 provisions.

It’s only a short drive from Interstate 55 in Jackson, Miss., to a sprawling one-story building sitting on a stretch of land not far from the police firing range.

The building is home to Mississippi’s largest juvenile detention facility – the 52,000-square-foot Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center. It can hold as many as 84 youths within its walls, including some as young as 10. There’s even a school within the building.

Henley-Young’s goal is presumably no different from other juvenile facilities – rehabilitate children and get their lives back on track. But the Southern Poverty Law Center found Henley-Young isn’t a place of rehabilitation. The SPLC uncovered accounts of a facility where the staff torment youths with taunts and threats, even children with mental illness.

At Henley-Young, one staff member’s response to a teen cutting himself with a razor wasn’t to stop him and get help, but to encourage the teen to kill himself so there would be “one less person officers have to worry about.” Another staff member threatened to harm a child’s family because that child took too long to return to his cell after a shower. And when the children at Henley-Young weren’t enduring threats, they were often forced to stay in their cells for 20 hours a day or more.

“When we talk about Henley-Young, we aren’t talking about hardened criminals,” said Jody Owens, director of the SPLC’s Mississippi office. “We are talking about children with mental health issues who need help. We are talking about children who need a second chance after making a mistake. Instead, Henley-Young cut their futures short. It’s a high price these children and this community pay for the failures here.”

The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 to end this abuse and protect the more than 300 children who pass through Henley-Young each year. Within a matter of months, a settlement agreement was reached to improve conditions at the facility. A nationally renowned juvenile justice expert – Leonard B. Dixon – was hired to regularly inspect Henley-Young to ensure it meets the terms of the agreement.

It seemed as if change was finally on its way.

But when Dixon submitted his first quarterly report this past summer, it showed that little, if anything, had changed: Henley-Young failed to meet even one of the agreement’s 71 provisions. The 53-page report – the result of Dixon’s four-day visit to the facility in May – not only describes these failures but provides a glimpse inside Henley-Young.

A ‘dungeon-like feeling’

The problems at Henley-Young are evident moments after a visitor arrives. Though the building is only 12 years old, its dilapidated condition makes it appear much older. Dixon recommended a “major overhauling.”

“The need for improved maintenance is of paramount importance,” he wrote. “The facility is not pleasing in appearance and has a dungeon-like feeling.”

The “dungeon-like” atmosphere is due to the building’s “extremely poor” lighting. Even within some of the children’s rooms, Dixon found only “minimal or no lighting.” His report suggests there’s simply no preventive maintenance program at Henley-Young – not even to screw in a light bulb.

But the poor lighting couldn’t hide the building’s crumbling condition. It was evident in the cracked windows and dirty toilets, the paper jammed in electrical outlets and the clogged drains where debris floated in standing water. Dixon even found the furniture “so ragged that it should be discarded.”

“Henley-Young is not clean,” he wrote. “The environment feels dirty.”

But it will take more than an army of janitors to fix the problems at Henley-Young. Dixon found that the children endure a “hard, sterile and depressing atmosphere” where they are overseen by staff members hidden behind the tinted glass of an observation tower. It’s the same atmosphere one might expect in an adult prison, but it has no place in a juvenile detention center.

“Henley-Young’s prison like environment works against its programming, treatment and rehabilitative objectives,” Dixon wrote. “The interior hardware, lack of color, bare walls, furnishings, wire mesh screening and rooms with old, hard and handcuff-cell doors provide a poor setting for learning and rehabilitation.”

Henley-Young’s visitation process also seems to reflect the belief that the facility is nothing more than a junior prison. Dixon found the facility allows only “non-contact” visits between a child and family members – in other words, visits where the child is separated from loved ones by glass and must communicate through a phone system. It’s the same approach taken with hardened criminals at adult lockups.

But visitation at an adult prison may be less frustrating. At Henley-Young, Dixon discovered that four of the eight phones used to speak to visitors were broken.

Lack of staffing ‘very concerning’

Each day, Dixon found youths on lockdown at Henley-Young. It wasn’t because the facility teetered on the brink of a riot. It was because Henley-Young had so few staff members.

The result is a facility that is “in perpetual lock down mode,” Dixon wrote.

Under the settlement agreement with the SPLC, Henley-Young must maintain a staff-to-youth ratio of 1-to-8 during the day and a ratio of 1-to-10 at night – a goal the facility has had a “very difficult” time achieving, Dixon found.

If staff members have tasks that take them away from their routine, a unit might be locked down until the staffer completes the task. One unit was on lockdown for several hours because a staffer had to transport a youth to Memphis, Tenn., and another staff member was “otherwise engaged,” the report found.

“At one point during my visit, the mandatory staff was not available so the cook had to help supervise the youth,” Dixon wrote.

Perhaps the most glaring staffing deficiency can be found in the director’s office. The facility has had three directors in three years.

“Because of the high turnover in the leadership of the facility over the past several years, it is difficult to create a safe and secure environment,” Dixon wrote. He added: “This creates instability, chaos and a lack of direction.”

After witnessing Henley-Young operate with such a small staff, Dixon found only one silver lining: “The one positive in all of this is that the facility has been below its capacity of 84.”

‘Very little, if any, rehabilitation’

A full complement of staff won’t magically remedy the problems. During conversations, Dixon found some staff members “were not aware of the facility’s policies” and that “the staff is instinctively doing their jobs.” Even worse, it appears that experience working at adult jails is valued much more than experience in juvenile detention.

“Henley-Young gives the mistaken impression that professional authority in juvenile justice is unimportant in the presence of adult correction experience and training,” Dixon wrote.

This is a major concern. Juvenile detention centers do not serve the same purpose as adult prisons. The goal of juvenile detention centers is rehabilitation – not punishment. This means children should not be treated the same as an adult prison inmate. But Henley-Young is staffed with people trained to do just that.

“The belief that experience in adult corrections or law enforcement service is a suitable substitute for knowledge and experience with adolescent development delinquency theories and juvenile mental health services have [sic] contributed to a system that is unhealthy for juvenile rehabilitation,” Dixon wrote. “It is imperative that employees and providers understand the concepts of the juvenile rehabilitative model.”

Though Henley-Young says it offers an 89-day rehabilitation program, Dixon found little evidence of it aside from a youth counselor visiting the facility.

“[T]here is very little, if any, rehabilitation occurring,” he wrote.

Dixon also found few extracurricular activities. He discovered that only boys were allowed to participate in outdoor recreational activities. Female residents – and apparently only female residents – do the laundry.

“At no time did I find boys at the facility doing any washing or folding of clothing,” he wrote.

Handcuffs used to control youth

The belief that Henley-Young is no different than an adult prison may explain why staffers are quick to reach for their handcuffs.

“[H]andcuffing of youth is use[d] by the facility staff more often than reported as a means of youth management,” Dixon wrote.

He found no indication that staff members use techniques to prevent a situation from escalating into an incident where force is used. It’s a troubling finding since a child is unlikely to see a doctor afterward.

“I found no documentation of a medical professional being notified when force is used on a youth, nor any indication that youth are seen after force is used,” Dixon wrote.

Even if a child receives treatment, Dixon found serious issues with the medical services at Henley-Young. A doctor doesn’t visit the facility. Instead, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) conducts medical screenings and physicals. And there’s no licensed medical professional at Henley-Young on nights and weekends – exposing the facility to “major liability,” the report found.

“Because (LPN) nurses are not qualified to complete physicals, the facility is putting itself in serious legal jeopardy, as well as is the nurse,” Dixon wrote. “The nurse is working outside her scope of practice and expertise.”

A ‘culture of suppression and harm’

After spending four days at Henley-Young, Dixon offered an assessment that doesn’t mince words.

“What is occurring at Henley-Young is an institutional culture of suppression and harm that has set in and has flourished over time,” he wrote. He added: “I find the Henley-Young facility falls far below contemporary standards for juvenile detention.”

The biggest problem is that the facility simply doesn’t have a staff well-versed in running a juvenile detention center.

“One of the drawbacks at Henley-Young is the absence of juvenile justice professionals who are well connected to the field,” Dixon wrote. “The administration has had relatively few persons to call upon for advice, guidance, or help.”

Not surprisingly, Dixon recommends that Henley-Young’s director and others visit juvenile detention centers in other states to get “an in-depth overview and greater understanding of the juvenile process.” He urges officials to contact the National Partnership for Juvenile Services to provide training to the staff. Also, throughout his report, he provides recommendations to help Henley-Young comply with the settlement agreement.

One step at a time

It’s obvious Henley-Young has a daunting task ahead, but Dixon’s report holds out hope that change can be brought to the facility. He urges officials to confront this challenge in a step-by-step process.

“Because there are many provisions to be addressed, I recommend that the County break the process into sections to ensure that each section addressed is functioning prior to moving on to another one,” he wrote.

Dixon’s next quarterly report may well show if Henley-Young has taken those first important steps.