A rash of suicide attempts at the Hinds County Youth Detention Center brought a long-simmering conflict to a boil Monday. The center, also called Henley-Young, saw six suicide attempts last month, District 3 Supervisor Peggy Calhoun revealed at a Board of Supervisors meeting. Over repeated objections from George Smith, president of the county Board of Supervisors, Calhoun suggested that a "cover-up" was responsible for the lack of communication between the center and supervisors.
"Why wasn't the Board of Supervisors notified of these incidents?" Calhoun asked. "I had to request documentation of this information twice, long after the fact. If a child is hurt at the center, then the Board of Supervisors is liable. It appears that there have been efforts to cover up these incidents."
Among other incidents, Calhoun described a male detainee hitting his head repeatedly against his cell door and a female detainee tying socks around her neck. Henley-Young staff may not be providing adequate supervision or communicating enough with each other, Calhoun suggested.
"When the detention center was under the supervision of the judge, there was no problem disclosing what was going on at the center," Calhoun noted, referring to Hinds County Court Judge Bill Skinner.
The Supervisors gave Skinner authority over the detention center, in addition to his powers as Youth Court judge, more than a year ago, but in January, it voted 3-2 in executive session to revoke that authority due to complaints. "The board had received information that we believe were federal violations regarding the operation of the center," Supervisor Robert Graham told the Jackson Free Press Tuesday.
Calhoun and District 4 Supervisor Phil Fisher opposed the move, and Skinner has asked a chancery-court judge for an injunction on his behalf. Skinner still serves as a Youth Court judge, however, which means that he controls the influx of juveniles into the detention center.
Skinner did not return calls Tuesday.
Speaking to the Jackson Free Press after the meeting, Graham cautioned that, while serious, Calhoun's comments were merely allegations and require investigation.
"We're going to move on these allegations and make sure that the children are being protected no matter what," Graham said. "We've requested that the state come in just to check out the allegations."
Calhoun provided documentation for her allegations in the form of reports from Henley-Young Director Darron Farr to County Administrator Vern Gavin. The reports detail the seven suicide attempts at Henley-Young since January, as well as incidents of detainee misconduct and an injury that a guard suffered May 28 while trying to break up a fight.
Donald Beard, director of the state's Juvenile Facilities Monitoring Unit, said state evaluators will visit the center June 10. A visit from the agency earlier this year turned up numerous violations. Evaluators found that the center was holding juveniles and adults in the same areas and detaining non-criminal runaways with criminal offenders, both of which violate state law.
Beard said evaluators will first look at whether Henley-Young is adequately staffed. Following national standards, his agency recommends that detention centers hold no more than eight juveniles for each staff person in order to prevent problems. If a detainee is on suicide watch, guards should have visual contact with him or her every five minutes, Beard said.
"Our recommendation is that we never allow overcrowding in detention centers for fear of something happeningvery much what's alleged at Henley-Young," he said.
Youth Court judges have substantial discretion in dealing with juvenile offenders, Beard added. Instead of detention, judges can refer juveniles to a mental institution or a monitoring program.
"If the detention centers is at full capacity, then some other alternatives should be looked into," Beard said.
Henley-Young Director Farr referred all questions to Gavin, who acknowledged the center's staffing problems.
"We were understaffed for maximum capacity, but at this particular point we are operating at maximum capacity," Gavin said. "So we're caught in a situation where we need additional staff."
The center is currently holding its maximum capacity of 84 juveniles, Gavin said. It has 24 people on staff, but not all of those are on duty at the same time. Gavin also said that Farr has recommended a lower staff-to-detainee ratio of five to one. Farr himself has little control over the number of juveniles he must hold. That figure is the responsibility of the Youth Court and Judge Skinner.
"Whether or not they are released or booked is the decision coming from the judge," Gavin said. "The court side determines who stays and who goes."
The Mississippi Youth Justice Project, an advocacy organization focusing on juvenile justice, toured Henley-Young in December 2008 and found several causes for concern, including the center's use of a restraint chair without properly trained staff. MYJP Director Bear Atwood, the center has stopped using the restraint chair, but she still has concerns about the lack of mental health screening.
"They should be able to say, 'We can't take a child who we can't care for," Atwood said this week.
Most people do not understand that the Youth Detention Center is a "holding facility" and not a juvenile prison. Children are held there for all sorts of reasons - not just because they are "aggressive youth" and would be charged as having committing a "crime" if they were considered adults. These are children. Some are held for their own protection until such time as they can be released to their parent or guardian. But all children booked into the facility are done so under the direction and administration of the Youth Court Services, which comes under the authority of the Judge - not DHS. The Department of Corrections deals with those considered juveniles but who have broken the law and are considered adults by reason of the law.
baquan2000: I think your asking that question proves my point - "most people do not understand..." the purpose of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center.
baquan, I think you might be confusing the detention center with the training schools. The Department of Justice sued Mississippi over the training schools, which are under DHS.