The U.S. Justice Department has sued Mississippi over allegations of abuse at two juvenile training facilities that house about 550 youths. Federal officials were unable to reach a deal with state officials over how to improve the at the Oakley Training School in Raymond and the Columbia Training School in Columbia.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports that children in the schools, ages 10 to 18, were routinely hit, shackled to poles, sprayed with pepper spray while in restraints, and hog-tied in a cell known as the “dark room.” A federal investigation determined that staff at both facilities sometimes punished girls overcome by heat by forcing them to eat their own vomit. “The conditions at Oakley and Columbia are unconscionable,” said a Justice official.
The Justice Department has also investigated conditions at juvenile facilities in Georgia, Puerto Rico and Kentucky. Those places agreed to make changes federal authorities sought. The Justice Department has not sued a state over alleged abuses in juvenile facilities since 1988.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said the state had worked to improve conditions at Oakley and Columbia. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, who leaves office at the end of the year, said federal authorities insisted on settling the matter with a consent decree – a federal court order – instead of with a letter that would have given the state more autonomy. The lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money, he said. “Unfortunately, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the lives of their children, Mississippi and the federal government will be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars paying lawyers, which is ridiculous.”
Shannon Stanford, whose 11-year-old son spent more than three months at Columbia, said the school should be closed down. Joseph Stanford was ordered there after shooting someone with a BB gun, his mother said. “These children are not getting the medical attention they need,” Stanford said. “They’re understaffed. They need to get new nurses down there, new doctors down there. It’s just awful.”
Child advocates hailed the Justice Department’s action. “We’ve been talking with the state to try to reform the unconscionable violations at the schools for months,” said Leslie Gross of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “But only recently has the state taken some first steps toward reform.”