Inmates locked in insect-infested cells for 23 hours a day without reason or explanation. Overcrowded conditions so bad that prisoners often slept on thin urine-soaked mattresses on the floor while they wait for a court hearing. These are not the conditions of an aging federal prison or even the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. These are the conditions at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Most of the youth held at this facility have not been convicted of any crime and are being held there pending adjudication. Many children are there for minor “status offenses” such as truancy and curfew violations. The facility did not distinguish between low-level offenders and those charged or convicted of serious crimes. For over nine years this is how the facility was run.
But thanks to litigation spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi Youth Justice Project, these conditions are in the process of being remedied. The lawsuit, filed in April on behalf of children and teens held at the facility, is just another in an organized effort to address the horrendous and unconstitutional conditions at privately-run juvenile detention facilities like the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center. The lawsuit alleged multiple violations of the youth’s constitutional rights and aims to strike another blow at the alarming trend of outsourcing corrections management to private companies such as the Mississippi Security Police, the group running the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center. At an annual cost of $1.6 million, the Mississippi Security Police ran the Detention Center largely outside the traditional framework of oversight and regulation afforded to state and county agencies. This lawsuit seeks to remedy the harm flowing from such a lack of oversight.
In a preliminary agreement reached last week between the SPLC and those running the facility, children will no longer be allowed to be confined to a cell for 24 hours unless it is disciplinary measure for youths who pose a serious risk of bodily harm. The agreement also addresses overcrowding by requiring any nonviolent offender be moved elsewhere in the detention facility if the center reaches 90 percent capacity for more than four days. Moving forward, no more than two juveniles may be confined to a cell, and no one will be allowed to sleep on the floor. Additionally, officials agreed to a specific staff-to-youth ratio to address safety concerns at the facility. Finally, the SPLC will work with Harrison County officials to identify alternatives to secure detention for youth convicted of low-level offenses, bringing an end to the practice of housing all offenders together, regardless of their offense.
The agreement stems from an earlier efforts, monitored by a federal judge, that granted child advocates access to meet with youths held at the facility, review records, and monitor conditions at the jail. Advocates see in this latest agreement a sign of cautious optimism that these efforts will eliminate the current problems at the detention center as well as curb any future problems.
As it stands, juvenile justice and education reform is a major civil rights issue of our time, with incarceration rates for African-American children double the rate for white children. Once a child is incarcerated for a status offense like truancy, they are far more likely to graduate to adult prison, often before their eighteenth birthday. The rise of privately-run facilities has done little to address the special needs of juvenile offenders and some argue has done more harm than good to an already overwhelmed system. But, through groups like the SPLC, civil rights advocates are making steps towards remedying some of the system’s most outrageous injustices. This agreement is just one of many designed at reconfiguring juvenile justice and corrections in time when reform is long overdue.
photo courtesy of Graham Crumb via Flickr.