The Last Shall be First

Three mothers, two black and one white, came to the State Capitol Monday, July 19, to tearfully beg the state to stop abusing children. One question: Will the state listen? Another question: Do Mississippians care?

The mothers were not scripted guests at the hearing called by Rep. Eric Fleming, D-Hinds. And none of them claimed to have perfect children who were completely innocent when they were sent to the state's Columbia and Oakley training schools.

Between them, their children—all under 18—were guilty of disturbing problems including assault, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, disrupting classes, fights, causing trouble at school. And all of the them are single mothers now, trying to go it on their own and help their children overcome demons, and emotional problems, and income deficiencies, and peer pressures. They are the women many people, perhaps while dining with silver spoons in their five-bedroom homes, talk about when they say, "It's up to the parents." "They must control their children." "It's about family values."

These women want to be good mothers. And they likely are, to the best of their abilities. But that doesn't mean that their children are perfect. No children are perfect. But some have more odds stacked against them than others: Fathers who leave or are imprisoned for drug or other crimes themselves. Parents who've lost their jobs. Role models with little or no education.

These children are more likely to get in trouble, and they are more likely to be sent to Oakley and Columbia training schools. And, yes, they are more likely to be ignored, misunderstood and abused by state employees.

Lest you assume this is bleeding-heart rhetoric, think again. The U.S. Justice Department—led by John Ashcroft himself—is suing our state for having, arguably, the worst conditions in its juvenile-detention facilities of any state in the United States. The charges—I'm going to repeat them until the compassionate cows come home—are deplorable: hog-tying children as young as 10; putting children naked in rooms without bathrooms so they have to sh*t on the floor; making young girls run through fields in 100-degree heat with tires tied around their waist. If they throw up, they have to swallow their vomit. Shackles. Handcuff scars. Bruises.

The list of charges, documented by the Justice Department, is inhumane, and inhuman, treatment of young people—some violent, some not, all in need of help. And on top of the actual abuses are the omissions: the lack of mental and physical health services, the poor education of children in the "schools"; the lack of basic human dignity and respect that every person deserves.

The Justice Department says that Mississippi, apparently in a bipartisan way, was so obstinate that it wouldn't promise to do what was needed to settle the case last year. And even now, sitting in hearings and committee meetings, it's as if many of the representatives don't want to talk about the actual training-school problems. They want to blame the whole mess on the "state" of public education, or twist it politically to fit their needs somehow, while they're off to fight for more tort reform or such.

What is needed, though, is a wholesale facing of the piper by all of us. WE are the state. WE fund the training schools. WE elect and pay the judges who send children there with no plan for rehabilitation.

But I fear that won't happen. Sure, we talk the talk about family values and all that jazz, but the truth is our society demonizes children at about every turn. Here in Jackson, you frequently hear from liberals and conservatives alike about the "bad kids" out there, the ones who rob and steal, the "wild tigers" who can't be tamed. We read in the daily newspaper about the boys at Lanier High School who can't be Mr. Lanier due to low grades, but we don't read a whole lot about the conditions that contribute to their low grades. Or, we (and they) don't read a whole lot about the kids at Lanier who are doing downright amazing things.

Too many people just want "bad kids" out of sight and mind. Too many lament what's wrong with the younger generations without facing what's really wrong with the younger generations. Elected officials cut education funding, and send their parents' jobs to China or Mexico, and bilk their families out of affordable health-care coverage—and then they have the balls to run around mouthing off about "wild tigers" who get in trouble. Or, my personal favorite, they deride families facing these pressures from all sides who "can't control" their children.

It does take a damned village. The fact is, those mothers today want help with their kids. And they're not getting it. They know their children aren't perfect—and it's time we all face that young people are going to make mistakes just like we did. I remember getting in a fight on a playground in the fifth grade; would that same incident today have sent me to a training school where I would be called a "cadet" and stripped naked or slapped if I did something wrong? Would that incident have ruined my life?

Very possibly. The facts about juvenile justice—which you are going to hear more and more about in the JFP, so settle in for the long haul—do not uphold the rhetoric of the tough-on-crime crowd (who too often, let's just admit it, wants to be tougher on kids, and adults, of color). As the mothers—and one young man who has been in the training schools twice already—told the committee today, their children are coming out of the training schools worse than when they went in. They are walking, talking and acting like criminals, or prisoners. Many of them start to assume they will not graduate and go to college; they will graduate with honors in recidivism and go to Parchman.

This may be hunky-dory with lawmakers whose first priority is helping private prisons fill beds, and thus increase profits, but it is not right for a just society. And if you happen to buy the radical idea that the measure of a society is the strength of its weakest members, facing the reality of the training schools is a good place to start.

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Just to toss some economic disparity issues into the mix, I knew a bunch of kids growing up who got sent away to 'reform schools.' Privately run, military-like schools, designed to get kids off drugs and curtail destructive behavior. It seems significant that when wealthier kids get into trouble, busted for drugs by parents, etc, they can afford to be sent someplace to get 'straightened out', without waiting until they get busted by the police, get a criminal record, and sent to one of the state run things so than can be abused/tortured. It's another one of these "but we all have equal opportunity in America" things - money confers choice, and can cover up a number of ills.



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