Only Children Bleed

The House Juvenile Justice Committee is holding legislative hearings on the training schools at the Capitol on July 19 from 2-5 p.m. and July 20 from 9 a.m. until noon in Room 113. Call Rep. Eric Fleming, D-Hinds, at 925-1740 or 359-3374 for more details.

Hand-lettered signs lined the front of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors' room imploring Mississippians to treat their weakest children better. "Treat Kids with Respect," said one. "Being locked up can make a kid even madder than when they are not locked up," said another signed by Donnie Tompkins, 17.

A roomful of parents, kids and children's advocates gathered on that rainy Thursday to lambaste treatment of Mississippi youth in the state's training schools. U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-2nd District, called the July 1 town-hall meeting to connect concerned citizens with U.S. Department of Justice attorneys who are suing the state of Mississippi for deplorable conditions in Oakley and Columbia, the two juvenile correction facilities run by the state. Brad Schlozman, deputy assistant attorney general, told the crowd that their investigation had found the "worst" conditions of any juvenile facility in the country.

A June 19, 2003, letter from Justice to then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove detailed "cruel and unusual punishment" of children when investigated in 2002. The report pointed to boys and girls being hog-tied in dark rooms for hours on end; being stripped naked and locked up with requests for water denied; being forced to urinate over drainage holes in the floor; being forced to run through fields with old tires tied around their waists in the hot sun; being forced to swallow their own vomit if they threw up during punishment; 10-year-olds being slapped by guards; being sprayed with pepper spray; being shackled to poles. Health and mental care, and educational services, were practically non-existent.

Schlozman said Mississippi is the only state that Justice is suing for child abuses; others have agreed to fix the problems and settled their lawsuits. Musgrove and former Attorney General Mike Moore refused to settle because, they said, it would give up too much of the state's control.

Two committees tried to set up a task force to come up with humane solutions during the last legislative session—but the legislators were otherwise occupied. They even voted down the task force, even though it had no money attached.

The problem, children's advocates argue, is that the boot-camp model of dressing up children in Army fatigues and browbeating (or beating) them into submission simply does not work. Mrs. Gardner, the mother of a boy sent to Oakley for truancy, said her son had to sleep on a board and was given sour milk. He was awakened at 4 a.m. every day. "That place needs to be closed. My son got no education there," she said.

Closing is what children's advocates would like to see happen. They argue that children who get in trouble should not go to prison-like facilities that just funnel them into an adult prison like Parchman.

Dr. Ginger M. Smith argued at the meeting for community-based programs that take individual children's needs into account. "They don't need to be treated the way youth are treated at those training schools," she said, adding, "My goal is to de-institutionalize children."

Schlozman said that most of the children are in the schools for minor offenses such as "forgery, violation of parole, theft, shoplifting, truancy, 'incorrigibility,' curfew violations and 'being ungovernable.' What does that even mean?" he asked an appreciative audience. "The overwhelming majority are completely nonviolent offenders." About 550 young people are housed at the two schools, mostly boys ages 10 to 17. Columbia also houses girls aged 10 to 18. Three-fourths of the children sent to the schools are black, a disparity pointed out by NAACP president Derrick Johnson.

"We don't care if they're black or white; no one needs to be subjected to these considerations," Schlozman responded. The statute that the Justice Department is enforcing does not look at racial disparities, only at unconstitutional practices, he said.

One solution to the state's dilemma—how to get the Feds off Mississippi's back without offending stingy voting bases—is to privatize the training schools and let a corporation run them, much as Gov. Haley Barbour is trying to do with adult prisons, but children's advocates oppose privatization. "That would put a price on juveniles' heads," Johnson said. "It would be an incentive to lock up children."

Dr. David Wheat of Clinton stood up to take offense at allegations that the children aren't receiving quality health care, saying that he has volunteered at Oakley for much of the past year. "I stay there until every kid who has a problem is seen," he said, adding that the state will not pay for children to be transported to UMC for needed treatment. When the attorneys tried to explain that the point of the lawsuit was the state's actions, not his, he yelled, "Let the white man talk!" Still, his point ultimately argued against the state.

Thompson pledged to find a solution. "Before we can fix it, we've got to figure out what's wrong," he said.


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