Juvenile-justice advocates filed a lawsuit last week that raises questions about how much the Hinds County Board of Supervisors knew about alleged abuses at the county's Henley-Young Detention Center.
The Mississippi Youth Justice Project, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a lawsuit last week claiming that youth detained in the detention center suffer various abuses and live in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. The advocacy organization says detention-center officials regularly isolate children in cells for 20 to 23 hours a day, deny them educational and counseling services, and verbally abuse the detainees.
The lawsuit states that Henley-Young staff routinely curse at detainees and issue threats of physical violence. Officers have even threatened to kill detainees, the lawsuit claims.
One specific incident in the suit describes what happened when a 17-year-old, referred to as D.I., began cutting himself with a razor.
"Instead of providing D.I. with the required care, Henley-Young staff taunted the youth and commented that if he succeeded in killing himself, there would be one less person officers would have to worry about," the lawsuit states.
Mississippi Youth Justice Project staff attorney Corrie Cockrell said her organization filed the lawsuit after attempts to work with the county on reforming the detention center's conditions failed.
In 2009, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding with the MYJP, which called for a series of detention-center reforms. The memorandum resulted in officers discontinuing the use of a restraining chair. But other requests, such as limiting the amount of time detainees are confined to their cells and ensuring that detainees receive educational and medical services, have not been resolved, Cockrell said.
"We were regularly meeting until a year ago to bring this to their attention, and progress was going well," Cockrell said. "... Then things became a standstill, and there was no movement in the right direction. From that point forward, we have been reaching out to the county, but felt like we had to bring the lawsuit forward because we have not been able to make any progress for a year now. "
Some supervisors and County Administrator Carmen Davis claim that they were unaware of the specific allegations named in the lawsuit.
Hinds County Supervisor Peggy Calhoun, who raised questions about the facility's staff and transparency in 2009, said she had not been notified of the allegations of abuse since the board passed the memorandum in 2009. She said that the weekly reports the MYJP provided to county officials contained mostly positive information about the detention center.
"I don't think the lawsuit is necessary to change any alleged conditions of prolonged isolation, verbal abuse and threats of physical harm, because if these matters come before board we will address the situation," Calhoun told the Jackson Free Press.
"... I certainly would not tolerate or allow any of the young people to be subjected to adverse conditions.
"Regrettably, the Southern Poverty Law Center has not communicated to
me any of their concerns, nor has staff communicated to me any concerns. When I heard about the lawsuit, I was appalled by all the allegations."
Davis, who is conducting an informal investigation into the allegations, said she receives reports from the MYJP each week and reviews and distributes them to supervisors. She said that the extent of allegations mentioned in the lawsuit did not appear in the reports she has received.
"The weekly reports were reviewed by myself and (Dale Knight), the director of Henley Young," Davis said. "We reviewed the issues that they raised in the weekly reports as best as we could because they were brought to us in a general manner."
Knight, who has served in his position since August 2010, denied the accusations.
"I am confident that we have done all that we can for our detainees," he said.
Cockrell, however, claims that the reports addressed the lawsuit's allegations, and her organization made several attempts to bring the allegations to officials' attention. In addition to ensuring that youth are treated properly, she said, MYJP wants the county to consider other juvenile reform programs.
"There are several alternatives to detention centers," she said. "Community-based programs could be for children who pose little threat to society, and children who do not require secured detention. These are programs that are proven to reduce juvenile-crime rates."
The Jackson Free Press has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Hinds County for MYJP's weekly reports.
If the Board didn't know, they should have known.