by DAVID M. HALBFINGER
September 1, 2003
COLUMBIA, Miss. — One Saturday morning not long ago, when Bill C. drove 80 miles to the Columbia Training School to see his 15-year-old daughter, locked up by the state of Mississippi for skipping school, she held up her hands and showed him dozens of nicks and cuts. Staff members had forced her to do scores of squat-thrusts on gravel, she quietly told her father, and refused her so much as a Band-Aid for her bloody hands.
“They said, `You did it to yourself on purpose,’ ” she told her father, who insisted that their names not be printed out of fear of reprisals against his daughter.
When Jason, 15, was ordered to the Oakley Training School in March after a string of burglaries, he hoped to get treatment for his bipolar disorder, which relatives say arose from sexual abuse he suffered at age 3. But in letters to his father, Jason was soon begging to be transferred to a state mental hospital.
“I never see a counselor but for two minutes,” Jason wrote, in faintly penciled but meticulous handwriting. “I was supposed to come here for punishment and help. Well I had my punishment, now I need help.”
Stories like these are among the mildest of the accounts now emerging of life inside the Columbia and Oakley training schools, Mississippi’s two state-run institutions for boys and girls deemed juvenile delinquents.
Established by both federal law and state policy, the schools are supposed to rehabilitate and treat children charged with misdeeds ranging from mischief to homicide. But interviews with relatives of students, as well as with one child released from Columbia, suggest otherwise. Together with a 48-page report made public recently by investigators from the United States Justice Department’s civil rights division, they paint a bleak picture of the schools as debilitating dumping grounds for troubled children.
Woefully underfinanced, understaffed and ill-equipped, the schools and their poorly trained workers dole out a volatile mix of physical and verbal abuse and mandatory Bible study, but withhold basic medical care and a decent education — all in violation of state and federal laws, according to the Justice Department’s report.
School officials insist that the worst abuses have either been ended or never took place.
But the federal investigators who descended on the schools four times last year found ample evidence to declare that children as young as 10 were being mistreated:
* Boys and girls were routinely hogtied, shackled to poles or locked in restraint chairs for hours for minor infractions like talking in the cafeteria or not saying “Yes, sir.”
* Girls were made to run while carrying tires, boys while holding logs, sometimes to the point of vomiting or injury.
* Boys and girls were choked, slapped, beaten and attacked with pepper spray.
* Girls at Columbia who misbehaved or were on suicide watch were stripped naked and left in a windowless, stifling cinder-block cell, with nothing but the concrete floor to sleep on and a hole in the floor for a toilet, for several days or even a week at a time. One girl had been locked in a bare cell for 114 straight days.
A Widespread Problem
Experts on juvenile justice say that what is happening in Mississippi is by no means rare. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and South Dakota, among other states, have all had scandals in recent years over the abuse or deaths of children in juvenile lockups.
“It’s amazing — in the juvenile justice field, you pick up any rock and you find stuff like this,” said Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Urban Institute’s Program on Youth Justice, who conducted a study of Mississippi’s training school population in 1989.
From the outside, the Mississippi schools look more like rural community colleges — low-slung, cinder-block buildings scattered across sun-baked meadows, ringed by chain-link fencing — than the prisons they effectively are. There are more than 300 boys ages 10 to 17 at Oakley, on 1,000 acres at Raymond, a half-hour southwest of Jackson. About 90 girls ages 10 to 18 and about 100 boys 10 to 15 are at Columbia, tucked away between McComb and Hattiesburg in southern Mississippi.
Officials of the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, who have pleaded for more money to hire workers and upgrade the schools, say the schools prepare students for law-abiding, productive adult lives with military-style discipline, individually tailored psychotherapy and counseling, health care and as solid an education as in the public schools.
But the Justice Department’s report found many examples of children being denied care and education:
* The acting head nurse at Columbia ignored children’s injuries and illnesses, refused help to girls fainting from heat and blocked access to the visiting doctor. The nurse at Oakley was seen immunizing two children for Hepatitis B with the same needle. Dental care was “nonexistent,” and the dental clinic at Oakley was a mess of mouse droppings, dead roaches and long-expired medicines.
* New students at both schools were kept out of classes for three to five weeks, violating state compulsory attendance laws. They were routinely pulled from class for work details, and those in isolation got sporadic instruction or none at all.
* Though mentally ill and retarded children belong elsewhere, 66 to 85 percent of the training schools’ students were found to have mental disorders and 9 percent were suicidal. Yet psychiatrists spent just one day a month on campus, mainly performing court evaluations, not treating patients. Counselors handled as many as 30 children each, allowing for little of the personal attention required by law.
Perhaps most alarming about the Justice Department’s conclusions, however, is how loudly they echo those of a federal judge in a landmark 1977 court ruling on conditions at Oakley. The judge ordered the hiring of more outside doctors, a full-time psychologist or psychiatrist, and enough counselors so that each handled no more than 20 students. He also ordered that children not be held in isolation cells for more than 24 hours — and then only if they posed a threat to themselves or others. But solitary confinement persists, according to the new Justice Department report, which urged the shutdown of the schools’ isolation cells. And a nonprofit group is seeking to have the earlier suit reopened.
Concern and Finances Wane
Experts say there is little mystery about how the training schools reached such a state. Public concern for treating juvenile offenders has waned, as has the attention of child-advocacy groups to battles considered already won. Legislators have repeatedly cut financing for the schools. And a 2001 state law made it easier for public schools to expel “habitually disruptive” students.
Nationally, experts trace the harshening of attitudes toward juvenile offenders to the early 1990’s, a time of soaring crime rates and sensational school shootings.
“But the truth was the spike in youth crime had more to do with guns and the crack epidemic,” said Richard Mendel, who has studied juvenile justice for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an advocacy organization for disadvantaged children. “When those dissipated, the economy improved, the crime rate went back to normal, and the issue lost its immediacy.”
But while the nation’s juvenile violent crime rate fell 40 percent from 1994 to 2000, and the juvenile homicide rate fell 70 percent, the number of incarcerated juveniles rose 74 percent from 1990 to 1999, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization.
“The story is of the disappearing delinquent,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “We’re not arresting as many kids.”
One reason, Mr. Krisberg and other experts said, is that states are filling their juvenile halls and training schools with children guilty of lesser offenses — either to justify the costs of new detention centers, or because no other option exists. Many of Mississippi’s poorest counties have no group homes or treatment centers, Mr. Butts said.
“They end up using those training schools as a catch basin for all the child and youth problems in the state,” he said.
The most striking indicator of that is the number of training school students committed for so-called status offenses: under-age drinking and smoking, truancy, breaking curfew, running away and other things that are illegal only for minors.
A 1974 federal law barred imprisonment for status offenders, but was amended 10 years later to allow it for children who violated a valid court order.
“The reason they did that, the defensible reason, was a lot of kids were in danger — the 12-year-old prostitute, the drug users — and judges wanted to do something to save them,” Mr. Butts said. “But of course the exception became the rule. People aren’t even shocked any more when they hear about a status offender being locked up.”
At the Columbia Training School, 75 percent of the girls were there because of status offenses, probation violations or contempt of court, the Justice Department found.
Budget problems have worsened conditions in many juvenile justice systems. Mississippi officials say they used to operate with a manageable 10 percent shortage of counselors, teachers and other workers, but legislative cuts and hiring freezes have increased vacancies to 39 percent at Oakley and 30 percent at Columbia. And managers at Oakley reported that the school could not afford to fire abusive employees.
A Mixed Response
How Mississippi will respond to this round of recriminations remains to be seen. In an interview, Attorney General Mike Moore welcomed the federal inquiry, saying it would provide “leverage to get more funding for adolescent-offender and community-based programs, rather than incarceration.”
Officials at the State Division of Youth Services, meanwhile, struggle to defend the training schools and rebut some accusations, while still clamoring for money to solve acknowledged problems. In a response to the Justice Department, for example, they wrote that two employees had been suspended for six weeks for hogtying and shackling children, the acting head nurse had been referred to the state board of nursing for investigation, a dentist and doctor had been hired at Oakley, and a local clinic had been hired to handle medical care at Columbia.
“It is our opinion that children on both campuses are safe,” said Willie Blackmon, director of the division, at the start of a brief, tightly controlled tour of Columbia.
Mr. Blackmon and two supervisors led a state representative and a few reporters through a school building, a dormitory, a medical clinic and a now-empty isolation ward. Inside, they displayed a “dark room” where girls had been confined without bed, toilet or clothing. The officials said it had not been used in months.
As the officials debated whether to drive or walk between buildings in the broiling sun, teenage girls in camouflage fatigues marched in step across the sprawling lawn.
Later, at her home in the Mississippi Delta, one member of that platoon, released hours earlier after more than five months, told of her experiences at Columbia during four stints for violations like running away from home and breaking curfew.
The girl, who could recount the dates of her stays and the names and ranks of numerous Columbia employees, said workers there had laughed behind the backs of federal investigators and scoffed at the investigation.
“They said they don’t give a care about the feds,” she said. “They cussed them out the same way they do to us. Their whole attitude changes every time somebody comes to check on the place. They’re all polite, nice and kind.”
The girl said the so-called dark room, supposedly long since decommissioned, had been used as recently as four weeks before her release. “I was in there, with no clothes, for 72 hours,” she said. Why? “I wouldn’t eat my vegetables. They said I was disobeying the state rules. You have to eat everything on your plate.”
Her longest stint in isolation was two weeks and five days, she said. Sometimes, she said, she wore a straitjacket. She and other children were put in a restraint chair for three hours, she said. “They’d tighten it up so much, they’d put a sock over your arm so you won’t see the marks, but your hands and feet get so swollen — I could barely walk,” she said.
She said she had repeatedly been pepper-sprayed — she called it “Maced” — often while running up and down a hill. “They make you run up and down 125 times,” she said. “They expect us to run like that and not get out of breath. If you stop, they Mace you. If you bend over to catch your breath, they Mace you.”
One staff member the girl named as having pepper-sprayed her was one of two school officials who led the lawmaker and reporters on the tour of Columbia. The man, she said, had assaulted her on the ground, digging his knuckles into her forehead and bruising her, after faulting her form during physical exercises.
The staff member, reached by telephone, denied such an incident had taken place. “Categorically, no,” he said. “We don’t do things like that.”