DHS asking lawmakers to close Columbia Training School

Published 4:32 pm Friday, February 15, 2008

The troubled Columbia Training School in Marion County will be shut down nearly four years after the federal government cited the state for allowing the abuse of female juveniles by the facility’s staff.

Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director Don Taylor said Thursday that 37 students should be moved in 90 days to the Oakley Training School, which now houses only male juvenile offenders. He said the boys and girls will have separate facilities for housing, meals, academics and recreation at Oakley.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state over conditions at Columbia and Oakley. Among the accusations were claims that youngsters at Columbia were forced to eat their vomit and were tossed nude into isolation cells.

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Mississippi entered an agreement in May 2005 to end the lawsuit. As part of that four-year consent decree, a court monitor oversees progress at both facilities. The latest report, released in June 2007, said some conditions were improving but there were still problems at the schools.

Taylor said the decision to close Columbia was prompted by “issues ranging from adequate staffing to quality of care, and desire to most efficiently spend taxpayer dollars.” The state will save about $2.7 million a year by shutting the school, he said.

While the Legislature must formally close Columbia, Taylor said the facility will be out of business once the students and staff leave. He said staff would be offered jobs elsewhere or be let go.

Columbia and Oakley house troubled teenage offenders for anywhere from six weeks to a few months, depending on the sentence for the crime committed.

Oakley, near Raymond in Hinds County, presently has 143 juveniles.

Gov. Haley Barbour said Thursday that he supports closing Columbia.

Bear Atwood, director of the Mississippi Justice Project, said Columbia was an expensive and wasteful use of taxpayers’ money and the organization supports its closure.

“It was not providing good services and had been damaging to girls for some time,” Atwood said. “We want to make sure that the girls who get moved get good services at Oakley and that gender-specific programming is planned.”

Atwood said she hoped DHS would consider releasing some of the female juveniles rather than sending them to Oakley.

She said her organization is pleased that Taylor mentioned his support for community-based programs handled through the youth courts that would keep some teenagers out of the training schools.

House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Earle Banks, D-Jackson, said he also supports the closing.

“How to close it is an issue,” Banks said.

He said the Columbia facility has 109 employees, and DHS officials told him that it might keep up to 51 of those workers and provide transportation for them to commute to Oakley. Banks said he didn’t know how long that transportation might be available.

“We are concerned about the physical and mental well-being of these 37 young ladies that are being transferred from Columbia to Oakley. We also are concerned about the young men at Oakley,” Banks said.

Ellen Reddy of Holmes County, a leader of the Coalition for the Prevention of School House to Jail House, has pushed state officials for years to improve conditions for juveniles at the training schools. She said she wants to see the state provide community-based services to help young people and their families.

She praised the decision to close Columbia.

“It’s a dream for our children. It’s a dream for our communities,” Reddy said Thursday at the state Capitol.

Attorney General Jim Hood said the decision by DHS was aimed at creating “a safer environment for our young people in the training school system.”

“I just trust that it’s the right thing to do,” Hood said.

Taylor said the relocation of students and consolidation of resources better supports the recommendations by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Columbia Training School was established in 1916 as a rehabilitative facility to help juvenile offenders placed in the custody of the state. There are 109 staff members currently working at Columbia, located in Marion County.

A lawsuit was filed in July against the state, alleging several girls were shackled for 12 hours a day and denied mental health treatment. One girl alleges she was sexually abused.

The lawsuit was filed by the Mississippi Youth Justice Project. One employee at the school has been fired, and five have been suspended without pay. Damages are being sought from only three employees at the school in their individual capacities, including administrator L. Donald Armagost.

In 2006, the state agreed to end a separate lawsuit federal officials filed two years earlier over allegations of abuse. A federal monitor visits both Columbia and Oakley.

Taylor said the consent decree allows for the closing of Columbia.On the Net:

Mississippi Department of Human Services: http://www.mdhs.state.ms.us