Abuse cited at youth training centers - Rights violated, Justice Dept. says
By Patrice Sawyer, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
Clarion Ledger, July 15, 2003

A 13-year-old boy under suicide watch at Columbia Training School reported he was hogtied face-down with his hands and feet shackled together.

Suicidal girls at Columbia said they were stripped naked and were placed in a dark room for as long as three days to a week with only a hole in the floor as a bathroom.

These examples form the basis of U.S. Department of Justice findings that the constitutional and statutory rights of juveniles under the care of the Mississippi Department of Human Services were violated.

In a 47-page letter, Ralph Boyd Jr., assistant attorney general with the Justice Department, also said the state's two juvenile correctional facilities, Columbia and Oakley Training School in Raymond, failed to provide required general education services and special education services.

In addition, the schools violated children's First Amendment rights by forcing them to engage in religious activities, he said.

Boyd said the Justice Department is willing to work with state officials to resolve the problems but says if no amicable solution can be reached, a lawsuit can be filed to protect the youth housed at Oakley and Columbia.

The Human Services Department runs the two facilities for serious and repeat juvenile offenders male-only Oakley and Columbia, which houses males and females. DHS spokesman Cory Wofford said a meeting with Justice Department officials is scheduled for today to discuss findings in the report.

"However, MDHS' attempts to investigate the allegations outlined in the report have been hampered by DOJ's refusal to release the names of the employees mentioned in their findings, as well as the names of the children who made the allegations," Wofford said in a written statement. "Until MDHS and the attorney general's office can receive the names of those who have been accused of such deplorable acts, DOJ is continuing to place the safety and well-being of the children at both facilities at risk."

Boyd stated in his letter that children who cooperated in the investigation didn't want their names released for fear of retaliation.

The Justice Department's letter comes a year and a half after 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson filed a complaint alleging poor medical conditions at the state's juvenile detention centers. He said then he had received complaints from parents alleging sexual abuse and substandard medical conditions.

"When we made the complaint in October 2001, we thought there would be some minor violations perhaps but nothing to the magnitude this report brought out," Thompson said Monday. "There are clearly some things going on in these two institutions that are illegal, and I think those employees who are guilty of doing them ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Thompson said he plans to send a copy of the Justice Department's findings to the district attorneys in the counties where the two facilities are housed to see if criminal charges can be filed.

"Those Draconian policies have been outlawed by every court in the land, and the fact these are juveniles these are happening to makes it even more egregious," Thompson said.

The letter said youth at Oakley and Columbia are subjected to unsafe living conditions and receive inadequate treatment and care.

Among the disciplinary practices used at the facilities are pole-shackling the improper use and overuse of restraints and isolation pepper spray and staff assaults on youth, the letter said.

"These conditions exist mainly because of staff shortages, ineffective management and supervision at every organizational level within both facilities," the letter stated. "Oakley and Columbia do not have any system of positive incentives to manage youth, but instead rely on discipline and force."

At the time of the Justice Department's visit, the number of boys at Oakley was 336 with a staff vacancy rate of 39 percent, the letter said. At Columbia, there were 92 girls and 104 boys and the staff shortage was at 30 percent.

U.S. Attorney General Dunn Lampton said he has been advised of the Justice Department's findings through the state attorney general's office.

"I can't comment about an ongoing investigation, but the allegations are serious," he said Monday. "I'm personally very, very concerned about children that are in custody."

Some of the Justice Department's findings mirror those in a July 2002 report from the state's legislative watchdog committee. At that time, the Legislature's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee recommended the adoption of an official medical manual, immediate access to full dental services, hiring more medical personnel and providing an additional 32 hours of training for new personnel.

PEER added that some of the problems could be attributed to inadequate funding of the state agency. Officials at the cash-strapped MDHS said they would work on some of the suggestions, but other recommendations required money the agency didn't have.

Other Justice Department findings:

Mentally ill youths are often untreated while in the facilities, even though they are admitted with a history of mental illness.

Youth at Columbia and Oakley receive inadequate medical and dental care.

Youth are not provided the proper medications for their physical or mental well-being.

Oakley's buildings and grounds are unsafe and unsanitary. Dirt, spider webs, mouse droppings and dead roaches were found in the dental clinic, and roaches and rodent droppings were found in the kitchen.

Columbia and Oakley youth have no access to a grievance system if they have complaints about their treatment.

Staffs at both facilities lack adequate training in several areas, including behavioral management techniques, assessment of suicidal youth, crisis management and working with violent youth.

Because of staffing shortages, the staff is overworked and under stress.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove's spokeswoman Lee Ann Mayo said the governor has been briefed on the Justice Department's concerns.

"The safety and well-being of Mississippi's children (are) of the utmost importance," she said. "He has full confidence in the attorney general and the professionals at DHS to ensure that our children are protected."

Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Bunky Huggins, R-Greenwood, said the state's money pinch will make it difficult to give MDHS any additional funds to comply with Justice Department recommendations.

But "if they say we have to do something and they issue a fine, we're going to have to find some money somewhere," he said.

Source: http://www.clarionledger.com/news/0307/15/m02.html

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