Lawsuit filed over juvenile center in east Miss.

Published 2:53 pm Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mentally ill youngsters in the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Center have been locked in crowded, unsanitary cells for 23 hours a day and staff members have used pepper spray on children’s faces, a nonprofit group claims in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

Disability Rights Mississippi filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court to challenge conditions in the 30-bed youth lockup. The lawsuit also claims juveniles were denied care for mental health and medical issues.

County officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, said attorney Lee Thaggard, who works with the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors’ attorney, J. Richard Barry.

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Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is an attorney representing the group that filed the lawsuit. She said in an interview that grand juries in Lauderdale County have found abusive conditions in the juvenile detention center.

Bedi also said residents in the county have tried for years to persuade officials to improve the treatment of young people. She said the center has held 11- to 18-year-olds.

“We see this lawsuit as the latest of multiple efforts to get Lauderdale County to properly care for its young people,” Bedi said.

A woman who answered the telephone at the juvenile detention center referred calls to County Judge Frank Coleman, who oversees juvenile court. Coleman could not immediately be reached.

Lauderdale County administrator Mike Sumrall does not oversee the juvenile detention center but helps handle the budget. He said Monday that “substantial improvements” have been made at the center the past two years. Sumrall, who said he had not seen the lawsuit, said Lauderdale County spends more on its juvenile center than some counties with similar populations.

Attorneys representing Disability Rights Mississippi are with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi Youth Justice Project.

Documents filed with the lawsuit show that Mississippi Youth Justice Project attorneys have been in contact with Lauderdale County officials since at least September 2008 about conditions at the juvenile detention center.

The lawsuit says that Disability Rights Mississippi — which recently changed its name from Mississippi Protection and Advocacy Services Inc. — monitors conditions at juvenile justice facilities in two of the state’s largest counties, Harrison and Hinds.