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More Problems In Juvenile Corrections

More Problems In Juvenile Corrections

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.

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photo courtesy of Graham Crumb via Flickr.

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18 comments

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12:47PM PDT on Jul 23, 2009

My son was jailed for being ill in Corpus Christi, Tx. He had just come out of the hospital. He sat naked in a jail cell for adults, till my family gave me bail. He was a teenager. Shame on Nueces County, Shame on our legal system, Shame on Dr. Scott, principal of Ray High School. Engelen

6:13AM PDT on Jul 10, 2009

Mary M & Sylvia - your comments show your true human nature. You sit in judgement on people. What are you going to do next? Are you going to convene a panel who gets to decide who can & can't "breed". Who gets to sit on that panel?
It is telling that an article posted over a week ago on Pres. Obama eating foie gras & veal got close to or over 400 comments. The vegans & vegetarians complaining that these animals were treated inhumanely; kept confined and tortured - and that an article about the youngest of our human population gets 16 and at least 3 of those 16 didn't seem to care if the kids turned out to be criminals or not because of this experience. No, they just had to get in snotty remarks about parents & breeding and that they were criminals who deserved to be thrown away.

1:14PM PDT on Jul 9, 2009

Cheerleaders for Gattaca needed, I think Mary and Sylvia could try out.

Go Team!

8:13AM PDT on Jul 9, 2009

Mary M: "Just one more reason for people to be tested BEFORE being allowed to breed. Do you think these jailmates have caring parents? Do you really?"

I agree completely. All this talk about "getting tough on crime" does not address the simple factor of dysfunctional families continuing to breed. Trying to preach responsibility for one's actions does not work for those parents. Also, I've read some articles about how some criminal behavior is almost hard-wired, especially if there is a history of antisocial personality disorder and other mental illnesses in the family history. The kids coming from those situations don't stand a chance unless they are removed from those families at birth, rather than waiting until they are older and f**k up and then dump them into the merry-go-round called the corrections system, which really does not correct a damned thing at all. It won't get any better with the current economic climate either.

6:44AM PDT on Jul 9, 2009

I LIVE CLOSE TO BILOXI!!! OMG!!! HAPPING RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES!!! THANKS FOR THIS STORY!!!! AND IT HAS NOTHING TO DO ABOUT RACE!!! I THINK ALL OF THE PRISON SYSTEM IS WRONG!!!

5:10AM PDT on Jul 9, 2009

One paragraph caught my eye, stating minor offenses such as truancy and curfew violations. We were all young once and got a kick out of skipping class, but we knew if we got caught that would be the end for us as well as curfew, now i would think that the school dist would most likely call the parents to come and pick their child up. And in my home state these kids are roaming the streets as late as 3am, nothing good can come of this unless they are returning home from a friends house, but when you see five or six makes you wonder. I ask where are the parents? These are in most cases the ones that cannot except being told what to do period. Sometimes when you ask for trouble you suffer what's next.

9:01PM PDT on Jul 7, 2009

I thought I was reading a third world country news also and it is disgusting. However, your statements of something being done and hold on little ones, help is coming. Well I'd like to know why these precious young kids wasn't getting the need and care plus looking after in what they were doing and where they were by their mother/father or whomever is suppose to be their guardian before the police becomes their guardian per se.

8:38PM PDT on Jul 7, 2009

Thank you, Jessica Pieklo for this article! I apologize if my previous comment did not make clear why this article prompted me to write about the Youth PROMISE Act.

At the website of the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project I found this: "We have launched initiatives aimed at helping the children who are most likely to end up in the juvenile justice system..." The Youth PROMISE Act would fund such initiatives nationwide.

The other thing this bill would do, if passed, is put programs in place that demonstate without a doubt the value of holding views of youth as real and worthy persons with meetable needs and true potential rather than as criminals and precriminals. Social justice for those most in need requires a society being able to set terrible (and erroneous) stereotypes aside. This is hard for some people to do when it "would cost so much" and is "too big to be accomplished." The Youth PROMISE Act puts in together in a packet where only projects with proven success at PRISON REDUCTION are funded--the sponser of this bill studied at least 50 of these.

Rather than sending kids to detention centers like the one mentioned, we'd be able to send them to afterschool programs, head start, and jobs programs. The best way to end detention-center abuse is by creating alternative and purposeful programs.

Besides inspiring me to talk about the Youth PROMISE Act, this article prompted me (even though I live below poverty line) to send a donation to the SPLC.

7:39PM PDT on Jul 7, 2009

There is some good news, actually some fantastic news. The bill with more growing support than any other right now, (with 219 cosponsers signed on in the house in only two months) is H.B. 1064, the Youth PROMISE Act.

The Youth PROMISE Act (Prison Reduction through Opportunity...) would (WILL!) create funding for youth programs which specifically have been shown to reduce youth violence and/or imprisonment. Funding will be preferencially available to cities/areas with greatest need. Choice of programs will be defined by local community councils, in response to perception of local conditions and needs. Continuation of funding for individual programs depends on demonstrated success.

This bill is fantastic because it will provide the opportunities that youth really want and need, while it will appeal very directly to those who want proven methods to reduce incidence of violence and save far more money than is spent. This is a bill with everything!

Take heart. Get involved and get your elected persons on board. It may well pass the house in two months... to get through all the stages including funding will take two years. Once it is in place, what a difference it will make for kids who haven't a hope in school and nowhere to go afterward.

Finally a bill that takes from the wisdom of all perspectives and puts it together in a way to meet real and essential needs of persons-at-risk and in need.

3:05PM PDT on Jul 7, 2009

This situation for a child detention center is appaling. How can an institution (much less a juvenile detention center) be allowed to opperate under these conditions? Parents or guardians that kept their children under these conditions would have lost their parental rights, charged with child neglect, and placed in jail (with conditions better then this). This facility shoud be, or should have been, closed down, and refilled with the members of the county and state prison board, all state congress persons and the governor. With as much as we pay in taxes I would expect that this kind of problem wouldn't occure in the U.S. ... I stand corrected and we should all stand ashamed.

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