For children and teens confined at a juvenile detention center in Meridian, Miss., the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center will bring dramatic reforms that will ensure the facility helps put young lives back on track rather than pushing them further off course.
Youths confined at Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility can no longer be locked in unsanitary cells for 23 hours each day. They can no longer be punished with Mace or pepper spray, or by being locked into a mechanical "restraint chair."
They will no longer sit idle in their cells with no meaningful rehabilitative, educational and recreational programs. And they will receive upgraded screening and treatment for their physical and mental health problems.
Officials in Lauderdale County, which operates the facility, also have agreed to consider alternatives to sending youths to the detention center – an approach that promises to better serve court-involved youth without tearing them apart from their families and communities. The settlement agreement, filed in late April, awaits approval in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division.
Sheila Bedi, SPLC deputy legal director, credited Lauderdale officials with taking action to improve conditions at the facility long before the settlement agreement was reached.
"This agreement and the improvements already made demonstrate Lauderdale County's strong commitment to protecting its detained youths," Bedi said. "We're looking forward to working with the county to ensure compliance with this settlement."
Youths were often kept in unsanitary cells at the detention facility for 23 to 24 hours a day.
Accounts of nightmarish conditions have dogged the 30-bed detention center for years. In an earlier assessment, a county grand jury wondered if the dilapidated facility was better suited to house animals instead of children.
Filed by the SPLC in November 2009, the federal class action lawsuit alleged that children and teens confined at the facility were subjected to "shockingly inhumane" treatment. They were crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with the arbitrary use of Mace as a punishment for even the most minor infractions – such as "talking too much" or failing to sit in the "back of their cells."
Youths like J.A., a 17-year-old girl identified in the suit by her initials, languished in small cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. And like the other children, she spent her days without reading or writing materials and without mental health or rehabilitative services.
There were no regular classes or recreation.
According to the lawsuit and Lauderdale County's own grand jury reports, the cells contained nothing but a toilet, sink and bunk bed and were kept dark most of the time. The toilets and walls were stained with mold, rust and human waste. Children often slept on mats that smelled of urine. The children were not allowed to have soap in their cells to wash their hands or even an extra pair of underwear.
The county's grand jury has perennially drawn attention to the conditions. A newspaper quoted a 2002 grand jury report: "We, the grand jury, thought that the juveniles appeared to be in 'kennels.'"
In September 2009, a state official confronted the county's board of supervisors, imploring them to either address the shortcomings or shut down the facility. The county supervisors said they were surprised to hear that there were still problems at the facility.
In addition to its many other reforms, the agreement establishes a Juvenile Justice Community Advisory Board. Composed of community members, the advisory board will seek input about court and facility operations from youths currently or formerly imprisoned. The board also will be responsible for touring the facility regularly, providing feedback to county officials and securing resources for court-involved youth.
The SPLC has a longstanding commitment to protecting children trapped in the juvenile justice system from abusive conditions and ensuring they receive treatment and rehabilitative services in their own homes whenever possible.
Despite widespread misconceptions, very few of the approximately 100,000 children confined in juvenile detention facilities across the country are alleged to have committed serious offenses. Almost all come from poor households. About two-thirds are African American or Latino.
Since 2005, the SPLC has worked with grassroots organizations and local government leaders to achieve systemic reforms for Mississippi's children. State legislation passed in 2005 and 2006 is now transforming the state's system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on community-based interventions that involve the entire family in the rehabilitative process. In 2009, the SPLC also supported the successful passage of legislation that will ensure juvenile detention centers across the state are closely monitored and that local and state officials are regularly informed about the conditions at these facilities.
In April 2009, a separate SPLC lawsuit over conditions at a juvenile facility in Biloxi, Miss., resulted in an agreement to improve conditions there. Like the Lauderdale settlement, the agreement ensured that youths would not be locked in their cells all day, forced to sleep on the floor or housed in overcrowded conditions. And like in Lauderdale County, the agreement required a suicide prevention policy and improved physical and mental health care. In October 2009, the SPLC worked collaboratively with the Hinds County Board of Supervisors to develop an agreement that would protect youths detained in the largest detention facility in Mississippi, located in Jackson. The SPLC is working to implement that agreement to ensure that youths are not subject to physical abuse and excessive cell confinement, or denied medical and mental health care.
But the SPLC's work is still needed in Mississippi. In some locales, children and teens continue to be locked away in tiny cells and brutalized with little hope of getting the services they need.
"This agreement with Lauderdale County is a tremendous step toward reforming the system there," said Poonam Juneja, an SPLC attorney in Jackson, Miss. "We hope other counties across the state will follow their lead."