Whistleblower’s courage led to SPLC lawsuit, juvenile detention center reforms

A former guard tells about her experience working at a Hattiesburg, Miss., juvenile detention facility and why she leaked videotapes showing violence against children held there.

Most people never see what goes on behind the walls of a juvenile detention facility.

But that changed for residents of Hattiesburg, Miss., in 2011 when a local TV station aired video footage taken by security cameras inside the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center.

As the grainy images flickered across TV screens, it was obvious why county officials had taken legal action in a failed attempt to keep the videos secret.

Viewers saw a child hogtied on a bed. They watched a burly guard slam a teen into a wall and onto a table before wrestling him to the floor. They witnessed a guard shoving and dragging a teen down a hallway.

Taking a stand
The videos sparked an SPLC lawsuit and a settlement that is slowly transforming the detention center – changes that might never have occurred if a guard hadn’t listened to her conscience and leaked the videos to the station.

“I wanted justice. I wanted some things changed,” said Tawana Bolton, who no longer works at the detention center. “I wanted people to start listening to what kids think, because they really don’t listen to them.”

Tawana Bolton

Bolton was passionate about her work. With three sisters working as corrections officers, some might even say this line of work is in her blood. During her eight years at the Forrest County facility, she did her best to get the lives of her young charges back on track. She listened to them. She advised them. And, she won their confidence.

“Whenever something went down, the kids always came to me,” said Bolton, who has four sons. “I guess I was the only person they could trust, so they always came and told me.”

But Bolton was fired after reporting a 2010 incident in which she said a supervisor shut off the water to a girl’s cell – a punishment that left the teen without drinking water and even the ability to flush the toilet. Bolton was accused of insubordination and forging medical excuses after returning to work following gall bladder surgery.

It was clear to Bolton that her real offense was reporting a supervisor.

“I loved my job. I really did,” she said. “It hurt my feelings the way they treated me. It wasn’t about the money for me. It was about these kids.”

Though she had lost her job, she hadn’t lost the ability to protect the children who were once in her care. For two years, she had been making copies of video footage showing abusive incidents. She would play the footage on a television in the facility and use a video camera to record it from the screen. It was a crude way to make a copy, but she didn’t want anyone to accuse her of stealing from the detention center.

“Something needed to be done. I said, ‘Somebody needs to know what’s going on in that facility and how taxpayers’ money is being spent.’”

She took the videos to WDAM-TV, which aired them in January 2011 after fending off a legal challenge by county officials. The footage was seen by Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office in Jackson.

“The videos were just shocking,” Owens said. “It was clear that children at the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center were enduring horrific abuse. It had to stop.”

The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit in April 2011 over the dangerous conditions. In addition to the violence documented in the videos, children were regularly confined to filthy, crowded cells for 23 hours a day, according to the lawsuit.

A settlement was reached that fall. County officials agreed to improve staffing and to alleviate overcrowded conditions; shorten the time that children are confined to their cells each day; and improve the sorely inadequate educational and rehabilitative programs.

Fighting for progress
But change has been slow to come. An expert appointed by the court recently reported that officials were “significantly behind schedule” – even backsliding. The 2012 report found the facility had made only minimal progress in reaching substantial compliance with the 70 provisions of the agreement. It even noted that to “have achieved so little movement at this point in the monitoring period is concerning.”

Since that report, there have been signs of progress. The detention center has increased its staff. It has developed a training plan that sets minimum standards and a behavior management program that rewards children for good behavior while offering a graduated system of sanctions for rule violations.

The behavior management plan was apparently a shock to some children. An Aug. 28 report by the court monitor noted that “some youth who have been frequently held at the [center] have been somewhat taken aback by the new [behavior management] procedures. That said, youth interviewed during my site visit spoke positively about the new Behavior Management Program and asserted that it has a positive impact on their behavior.”

But there is still much work ahead to ensure new policies and procedures are followed. Staff training is needed to ensure children receive screenings that can identify mental health issues and other problems. Suicide prevention training is needed as well. The detention center also has not shown that its staff can respond to serious incidents such as fights and suicide attempts in a consistent and appropriate manner. 

Despite the challenges, the efforts to transform the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center are a tribute to the courage of a former guard unwilling to remain silent about the abuse she discovered, Owens said.

“In so many ways, Tawana Bolton is a hero,” he said. “Without her courage, we would not have known about the abuses.”

Bolton sued her former employer over the firing, ultimately settling with the county for $250,000. But it was never about the money.

“What is a job if you can’t tell the truth?” she asked.

She now works at a state hospital, where she assists nurses with mental patients. Though she’s no longer working at a detention center, she’s still helping people. Her compassion and ability to comfort patients hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

“It seems like the same thing to me,” she said, comparing her new job to her previous work. “As soon as I got there, I was talking to patients and calming them down. My co-workers were like, ‘Have you done this before?’”

When she’s away from the hospital, she’s still reminded of the detention center. She regularly encounters children she knew there.

“They see me before I see them,” she said. “They come running, ‘Miss Tawana! Miss Tawana!’ I have a good connection with them.”

They often tell her how much they appreciated her kindness, particularly her willingness to listen. It’s another reminder of why she took a stand.

“It should be about rehabilitating these kids,” she said. “That’s why I was glad to see the SPLC go after the detention center with a lawsuit. I just want to thank the SPLC. They do a great job helping these kids.”