House committee explores accusations of abuse at Columbia Training School

Published 3:45 pm Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Inmates at the state’s only juvenile correctional facility for girls were subjected to sexual propositions from male guards, long periods in restraints and sporadic visits from mental health counselors, a legislative committee heard Tuesday.

House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, called a meeting of his committee to explore allegations that eight girls at Columbia Training School were restrained 11 hours a day for more than a week after rumors circulated that some of them might try to escape.

One 16-year-old girl, whose identity was withheld, told a packed room of lawmakers and child advocates at the state Capitol that she was chained in leg shackles from about 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for as many as 11 straight days.

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The girls were forced to wear the restraints to school, recreation, the cafeteria and church services, she said. Some of the girls had minor injuries from the prolonged use of shackles.

An angry Flaggs held up a pair of the restraints when he scolded Department of Human Services officials over the conditions at the 1,500-acre facility in Columbia.

“You shackle a person in church? What kind of psychological effect does that have on a child?” Flaggs asked. “That’s torture. Hell, we treat the terrorists better than that in this country.”

The young girl also testified that some guards at Columbia asked girls to perform sexual acts and provided them with their telephone numbers with hopes of making a rendezvous once the teens were released.

“When we reported it, they just shunned it off,” she said of DHS officials.

DHS Executive Director Don Taylor was not present at Tuesday’s hearing.

Richard Harris, a DHS deputy administrator, said the allegations are being investigated and two officials at the school have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the probe. He said a report should be available in the next five days.

“Abhorrent mistreatment of juvenile offenders in our training schools is counter to department policy. It is counter to the extensive training that has been provided to our staff over the last several weeks and months,” Harris said. “We do not and will not tolerate mistreatment of children.”

Harris was hesitant to say whether the restraints were used improperly, but conceded that they likely were, under questioning from Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville.

“Under the law, if this had been in my house, and I had done this to my children, would I be charged with child abuse?” Hines asked. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Harris said.

Columbia and the state’s facility for troubled boys, Oakley Training School, have a dismal record when it comes to abuse and neglect.

Mississippi entered an agreement in May 2005 to end a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over allegations of deplorable conditions at the facilities, including accusations that some youngsters at Columbia were forced to eat their own vomit and tossed nude into isolation cells.

As part for a four-year consent decree between the state and Justice Department, a court monitor oversees progress at the facilities. The latest report, released last week, says conditions are improving but there are still problems at the schools.

Lawmakers also expressed concern Tuesday over the increasing costs of housing youngsters at the facilities. Columbia houses 33 girls with a budget of nearly $5 million and Oakley has a budget of $10 million and houses 146 boys.

Flaggs and a paid consultant, Timothy J. Roche, both suggested that shutting down Columbia might be the only was to stop the problems there.

“What we have heard is unquestionably, in my mind, abuse,” said Roche, who specializes in juvenile corrections. “Columbia has demonstrated an inability to keep girls safe.”

Members of the Council of Youth Court Judges said the state needs facilities for youngsters who pose a danger to the public, particularly violent offenders.

Adams County Youth Court Judge John Hudson said progress has been made in Mississippi’s juvenile correction system in recent years and he urged officials to abandon desires to close the facility without first identifying where the dangerous youth would be sent.

“It’s going to take more than two years to change something that took 100 years to develop,” he said of Mississippi’s juvenile justice system.

Flaggs had planned to visit Columbia on Thursday, but said he will wait for DHS to issue a report on the allegations of abuse.