Lawsuit: Conditions awful at Miss. juvenile center

Published 11:50 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A south Mississippi juvenile detention center subjects youth to physical and emotional abuse and forces them to live in squalid cells infested with insects and the stench of human excrement, a federal lawsuit alleged Monday.

An attorney for the private company that runs the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center said he had not seen the lawsuit and denied there are major problems at the facility.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Gulfport on behalf of a 17-year-old boy referred to only by the initials “D.W.” and seeks class protection of others in the facility. It alleges, among other things, that D.W. “endured a brutal physical assault from adult staff members” and was denied appropriate mental health care after he tried to commit suicide.

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“The abusive conditions at the Juvenile Detention Center include punitive shackling, staff-on-youth assaults, 23-hour a day lock-down in filthy jail cells, unsanitary conditions resulting in widespread contraction of scabies and staph infections, dangerous overcrowding that forces many youth to sleep on the concrete floor, and inadequate mental health care,” the lawsuit alleges.

Harrison County was named as the defendant in the lawsuit, which says the county pays Mississippi Security Police Inc., a private company based in Pascagoula, $1.6 million a year to house juveniles.

County Administrator Pam Ulrich said she had not seen the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.

Mississippi Security Police is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

Tim Holleman, a Gulfport attorney who represents the company, denied the accusations and questioned the motives of the group that filed the lawsuit.

Members of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, planned a news conference Monday after the lawsuit was filed.

“It’s kind of interesting that they would hold a press conference before anybody’s seen the lawsuit and I have corresponded with them for months over getting access to the jail. And this is the first time they’ve ever mentioned problems,” Holleman said. “I’ve had clients go in there and not one of them has ever said anything about abuse or anything of that nature.”

As for staph infection, Holleman said that’s a problem even in sterile environments like hospitals. And he denied the facility is routinely overcrowded, though he acknowledged it sometimes exceeds its designed capacity of 48 because of the need to hold youth accused of serious crimes.

Sheila Bedi, the SPLC’s regional juvenile justice attorney, said the population of the detention center is sometimes as high as 60 and that most of the youth there are involved in minor crimes like disorderly conduct.

She said it’s problematic for a for-profit company to run a juvenile correction center: “When there’s a market incentive to imprison children, the entire community suffers.”

The lawsuit “was the only option” after lawyers were denied access to the facility for months, said Bear Atwood, director of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project.

Bedi said the group hopes to work with Harrison County to resolve the matter in the best interest of the youth involved.

The lawsuit claims D.W. “spent 23 hours a day locked in a filthy vermin-infested jail cell” and was forced to sleep on the floor “with only a thin mat that smells of urine.”

“Indeed, D.W.’s plight echoes the stories of over thirty youth interviewed by attorneys. All of these children uniformly describe the Juvenile Detention Center as a squalid, overcrowded facility that is infested with insects, where jail officials frequently resort to violence,” according to the lawsuit.

The Mississippi Youth Justice Project helped shut down Columbia Training School, a state-run juvenile correction center for girls, after suing over similar conditions last year. The problems at Columbia were not unique. A monthslong investigation by the AP last year revealed more than 13,000 claims of abuse in juvenile correction centers around the country from 2004 through 2007.

In Harrison County, the lawsuit seeks an injunction to end “unconstitutional” practices at the detention center “and to provide class members with constitutionally required care and living conditions.”

The lawsuit seeks access to the facility by lawyers with the Mississippi Protection and Advocacy System Inc., a nonprofit organization that monitors juvenile correction centers, and access to records and investigatory findings.