Training Mississippi's Kids


The State of Mississippi is shutting down a juvenile prison called the Columbia Training School. Here are a few snapshots of life at Columbia, as compiled by investigators from the Southern Poverty Law Center [PDF]:

Youth reported that they had either observed or experienced having their arms and legs shackled to poles in public places. For instance, one young girl reported that her arms and legs were handcuffed and shackled around a utility pole because she was non-compliant during military exercises. The rest of the unit was forced to perform military drills around her. The youth was shackled for at least three hours, released for lunch, and briefly shackled again….Another girl reported that two weeks prior to our visit, she was shackled to a pole for talking in the cafeteria. Still another girl reported that she was shackled to a pole for approximately four hours because she did not say, "Yes, sir," on command….

Girls in the SIU at Columbia are punished for acting out or for being suicidal by being placed in a cell called the "dark room." The "dark room" is a locked, windowless isolation cell with lighting controlled by staff. When the lights are turned out, as the girls reported they are when the room is in use, the room is completely dark. The room is stripped of everything but a drain in the floor which serves as a toilet. Most girls are stripped naked when placed in the dark room….

In the girls' SIU at Columbia, staff reportedly have hit, choked, and slapped girls. For instance, girls reported that a ten-year-old girl was slapped by a male security guard. A young boy in the boys' SIU reported that before being taken to the SIU, security slapped him twice in the face and placed his neck in a sleeper hold….At Columbia, boys in the SIU reported that staff sprayed [pepper spray] under their locked cell doors and that staff sprayed boys in the face while they were hog-tied. Boys also told us that staff sprayed into the air while boys were doing exercises for punishment in the SIU. Incident reports make clear that suicidal youth are sprayed for their suicidal gestures and behaviors and that youth locked in isolation rooms who bang on the door of their cell are sprayed. A log entry for the SIU in May 2002 indicates that a suicidal girl was sprayed because she refused to remove her clothes before being placed in the dark room.

And who are these detainees?

The majority…are nonviolent offenders. For example, 75 percent of the girls at Columbia are committed for status offenses, probation violations, or contempt of court.

I should add that while I'm generally skeptical about the SPLC, for reasons laid out by Ken Silverstein in Harper's eight years ago, the group isn't alone here: The "training school" has been pilloried in the media and was targeted (obviously) by investigators elsewhere in the government. If anything, I'm happy to see the SPLC attack an actual threat to people's civil rights, as opposed to raising a panic about the bogeyman of the "extreme right." It wasn't a handful of doofuses in sheets who abused those kids at Columbia. It was prison staffers paid by Mississippi taxpayers.

Correction: The SPLC played an important role in closing the institution, but it did not, as I carelessly stated, write the report I quoted. The investigators who compiled it were employed by the U.S. Department of Justice.