After years of documented abuse and consequent lawsuits, Columbia Training School is finally closing its doors to troubled girls. Of the 37 girls who remained at the school, 11 were sent to the Oakley Training School June 11, after state officials had paroled the other 26 into community-based programs. The Columbia Training School in Marion County will officially close June 30.
In 2003, the Department of Justice released a report detailing the abuse of many of the children at the facility. At Columbia, girls claimed they were often shackled improperly leading to extreme pain and scarring. Many of the girls suffer from mental illnesses and never received appropriate psychological care. The guards would throw suicidal girls into the "dark room," a windowless room with only a drain in the floor as a bathroom. The room was often kept pitch black, and the girls were usually locked in naked and forced to take meals in the room as well.
Other allegations detail the girls being forced to eat their own vomit and having pepper spray used on them even while they were already restrained.
In December 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state demanding that the conditions of the training schools be improved. The suit led to the training schools being placed under a federal consent decree in 2005, and the Mississippi Department of Human Services agreed to launch a four-year program to gradually improve the conditions of the training schools. Many adolescent girls were released due to unsafe ratios between them and the staff members.
The Mississippi Youth Justice Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of girls in the Columbia School in 2007 due to alleged abuse. The girls claimed they were shackled when another girl falsely told guards that they would try to escape. They also claimed repeated sexual abuse. Among the defendants of the lawsuit were Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi Department of Human Services Executive Director Don Taylor and Columbia Administrator Donald Armagost.
Girls had been placed in Columbia for a variety of offenses, some as minor as truancy. The school holds very few violent female offenders; and the most violent were simple assaults. The Mississippi Youth Justice Project has proposed alternative ways of dealing with troubled teenagers, such as community-based programs that focus on rehabilitation within the girls' own environment specific to their needs. Such programs would include drug and alcohol rehabilitation, psychological counseling and family interventions.
Oakley is still under the Department of Justice's federal consent decree. Though their facilities still have some distance to go before they are up to snuff, Bear Atwood, the director of the MYJP is hopeful.
"You know, it's really good. They need to close Columbia, and we do have concerns about Oakley, and we will be watching them closely. But it is an opportunity for them to start fresh and change the culture at the training schools."
The end of a sick and twisted era...