Suit filed over youth centers
By Ana Radelat
Clarion-Ledger Washington Bureau, December 19, 2003

MISSISSIPPI

The children in the two schools, ages 10 to 18, were routinely hit, shackled to poles, sprayed with pepper spray while in restraints, and hog-tied in a cell known as the "dark room."

Courts order youths into the schools for several reasons, including truancy, theft and break-ins. State budgetary woes have caused the schools to be chronically understaffed.

WASHINGTON Justice Department officials sued Mississippi on Thursday over long-standing allegations of abuse at two juvenile training facilities that house about 550 youths.

Courts order youths into the schools for several reasons, including truancy, theft and break-ins. State budgetary woes have caused the schools to be chronically understaffed.

Federal officials filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jackson after they were unable to reach a deal with state officials over how to improve the conditions at the Oakley Training School in Raymond and the Columbia Training School in Columbia. The suit stems from a yearlong investigation into the two training schools.

The children in the two schools, ages 10 to 18, were routinely hit, shackled to poles, sprayed with pepper spray while in restraints, and hog-tied in a cell known as the "dark room," the Justice Department said. The federal investigation also determined that staff at both facilities sometimes punished girls overcome by heat by forcing them to eat their own vomit, said Alexander Acosta, assistant U.S. attorney for civil rights.

"The conditions at Oakley and Columbia are unconscionable," Acosta said.

The Justice Department has also investigated conditions at juvenile facilities in Georgia, Puerto Rico and Kentucky. But those governors agreed to make changes federal authorities sought. The Justice Department has not sued a state over alleged abuses in juvenile facilities since 1988.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, in a statement Thursday, said the state Department of Human Services has worked hard with Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore and the Justice Department to improve conditions at Oakley and Columbia. "Instead of filing a lawsuit, I am urging the Justice Department to cooperate with the attorney general," Musgrove said. "Our resources should be focused on taking care of our children."

Moore, who leaves office at the end of the year, said federal authorities insisted on settling the matter with a consent decree a federal court order instead of with a letter of agreement that would have given the state more autonomy. The lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money, he said. "Unfortunately, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the lives of their children, Mississippi and the federal government will be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars paying lawyers, which is ridiculous."

Shannon Stanford of Horn Lake, whose 11-year-old son spent more than three months at Columbia, said the training school should be closed down. Joseph Stanford was court-ordered there after shooting someone with a BB gun, his mother said.

"These children are not getting the medical attention they need," Stanford said. "They're understaffed. They need to get new nurses down there, new doctors down there. It's just awful."

During Joseph's time at Columbia, he was denied his antipsychotic medication and asthma inhaler, Stanford said. As a result, he began seeing and hearing things that were not there and thought someone was out to kill him and his parents, Stanford said. Joseph had not hallucinated before, she said.

"We're still having to struggle with some of the stuff that happened down in Columbia," said Stanford, a nurse.

Some incidents at the training schools cited by Justice were reported to Moore, the department said, but Moore's office responded it would need the names of youths making the allegations to start a state investigation.

Among the "remedial measures" the Justice Department recommended were the end of hog-tying, shackling and use of the dark room. Pepper spray should be used only "when there is imminent risk of bodily harm," department officials said.

Federal officials also called for more counselors and psychologists, an end to placement of kids in isolated cells for long periods and an end to paramilitary programs.

Child advocates in Mississippi hailed the Justice Department's action.

"We've been talking with the state to try to reform the unconscionable violations at the schools for months," said Leslie Gross, advocacy director and attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice. "But only recently has the state taken some first steps toward reform."

Oakley was placed under a restraining order by a federal court in Mississippi in 1977, the result of a lawsuit against the facility. But "no one monitored any compliance with the court order," said Ellen Reddy, a member of the Mississippi Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Coalition, a group of teachers, civil rights activists and public policy activists who are trying to help troubled kids. Members of Reddy's group asked Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-2nd District, to seek a Justice Department investigation of the training schools and he did.

Staff writer Riva Brown contributed to this report.
Source: http://www.clarionledger.com/news/0312/19/m02.html


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