In early 2001, my office received the first of many complaints from concerned parents with children housed in either the Columbia or Oakley Training School.
Those detailed complaints described physical and mental abuse of children at Mississippi's two juvenile justice facilities. The complaints were supported by first-hand accounts from doctors and other medical professionals familiar with the schools.
Their reports cited the lack of 24-hour, 7-day-a-week medical access, no dental services, no infirmary isolation — resulting in outbreaks of ectoparasites — children being disrobed for medical screenings in full view of other employees and juveniles and ignoring children with physical or mental disabilities.
Situation was ignored
More serious complaints involved administrative officials who made medical decisions that should have been made by doctors, children who were being placed in restraint chairs without proper medical supervision, and correctional guards who participated in sexually inappropriate conduct with these juveniles.
I wrote Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and the director of Human Services, and three weeks later — after no reply — I wrote letters to an expanded group of state and local officials, including Gov. Musgrove, the director of Human Services, former Attorney General Mike Moore, the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER), and more than 50 members in both houses of the state Legislature, including the respective chairmen of both Juvenile Justice Committees.
On Oct. 26, 2001, I asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an investigation. In November, DOJ informed me that it would conduct the investigation if a preliminary review warranted such. On May 8, 2002, DOJ informed the state of its intent to investigate the two training schools pursuant to two relevant federal statutes.
The Justice Department found that "conditions at Oakley and Columbia violate the constitutional and statutory rights of juveniles."
In its June 19, 2003, findings letter which is available online at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/split/documents/oak_colu_miss_findinglet.pdf, DOJ found that "youth confined at Oakley and Columbia suffer harm or the risk of harm from deficiencies in the facilities' provision of mental health and medical care, protection of juveniles from harm, and juvenile justice management."
Blame can't be deflected
Even with an advance warning, incidents of "hog-tying" were confirmed by youth and staff. Girls were stripped naked and placed in the "dark room" — a locked, windowless isolation cell with only a drain in the floor — for days at a time. While I will spare another recitation of the instances of assault, staff shortages, poor or no medical care, lack of educational services and unsanitary conditions — all of which are violations of federal law — please understand that the victims are boys and girls age 10 to 18.
In December 2003, DOJ filed a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi for these abuses and violations of federal law. In the wake of this lawsuit, Mississippi officials are trying to blame me when they should be concerned with how and why this situation ever existed. I am convinced that significant and drastic changes must be made within Mississippi's juvenile justice system.
Even children who have done wrong deserve to be treated humanely by those charged with protecting them.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, represents the 2nd Congressional District. To contact: (601) 866-9003; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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