Civil Liberties

Training Mississippi's Kids

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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.

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  1. And I’m supposed to be having more kids because…

  2. Any of these kids have bite marks that can’t been seen by normal people?

  3. It wasn’t a handful of doofuses in sheets who abused those kids at Columbia. It was prison staffers paid by Mississippi taxpayers.

    Dadgum gubmint took my job!

  4. What really gets me here is the “juvenile” part. I mean, what kind of crazed fuckheads would come up with this sort of thing, let alone actually enact it?

  5. What in the hell is a 10 year old doing in a juvenile prison?!?!

  6. Beating and hurting the children is the way to save them. If they were not lawbreakers they would not have been in there in the first place and kids have got to learn discipline. If adults do not employ corporal punishment like the Bible says then kids will grow up to be drug abusers and probably commit even more violent crimes like selling drugs.

  7. I also do not understand the idea that physical labor or exercise can be required in a prison setting.

    You’ve got my time, but fuck you I’m not doing any exercise. Period.

    The overwhelming majority of the “torture” incidents listed here were initiated because children refused to exercise on command. Well, too fucking bad, prison guards.

  8. Prison is fucked up every way you slice it. This is perhaps our most overlooked political issue. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors, putting people in these hell holes. Sooner or later we (mostly) let them out. (When we subject them to another abomination of crime and corruption known as parole).

    But you can’t get most people to sit still for two seconds talking about prison reform. All they want is more bars and more guards, so we can lock up more people for longer time. And the more cruel and inhuman, the better.

  9. “What in the hell is a 10 year old doing in a juvenile prison?!?!”

    You’re throwing softballs. That’s way too easy!

  10. Warren: I agree completely. One of the biggest elephants in the room that nobody wants to look at.

  11. Warren,

    I agree to an extent.

    They should trade the luxuries the prisoners get, like cable and fine dining, for a safer, more isolating prison.

    I agree that they should not be treated cruelly, but they should also not be so soft that they become incentives for violence.

  12. And the staff members told themselves they were doing something virtuous, no less. I’m guessing none of them will be facing any charges?

  13. I really don’t see what the problem is here. These are kids who have broken the law ant this just seems like a good, eficient way to mete out some good ‘ole fashioned severe punishment. This may save these kids from aifetime of crime and drugs.

  14. Stories like this and the recent Chesapeake case make me really furious, because they show the stark injustice and abuse heaped upon “perps” by the law enforcement/security community – what kind of sick fucker pepper sprays and headlocks a 10 year old? Being willing to do that and get paid for it is a serious sign of mental illness.

  15. Also, it assumes that somehow the state has a magical ability to reform and correct behavior that friends and family could never have.

  16. what kind of sick fucker pepper sprays and headlocks a 10 year old?

    The kind who, as a child, says “overseeing human beings locked in cages” when adults ask “and what do YOU want to be when you grow up?”

  17. “Being willing to do that and get paid for it is a serious sign of mental illness.”

    I’ll bet that as a portion of the hiring process for these thugs was a drug test. Good thing, wouldn’t want anyone who may have smoked a joint around the children.

    To the people running these punishment camps brutality must be a feature, not a bug.

  18. Is a job at one of these juvenile punishment camp industrial complexes a career stepping stone to the real incarceration nation (prison)?

  19. Does anyone else get creeped-out by those commercials for child behavior centers on the radio?

  20. Also, it assumes that somehow the state has a magical ability to reform and correct behavior that friends and family could never have.

    Not to mention that if you had a 10 year old daughter and you made her strip naked, get in a pitch-black room, and pepper-sprayed her in the face when she banged on the door, you would be seriously prosecuted.

  21. Does anyone else get creeped-out by those commercials for child behavior centers on the radio?

    It’s probably a result of where you live, Taktix?. I’m in NYS, and this is not something I’ve ever heard on the radio. But yes, that would probably creep me out.

  22. Reinmoose,

    I generally hear them during the Right-wing talk shows, which I tune into from time to time for laughs…

  23. Prison is fucked up every way you slice it. This is perhaps our most overlooked political issue.

    Tell me. Some equal rights geniuses decided that male guards in a women’s prison would be a good idea here in Michigan. The results? Funny you should ask.

    I initially expected something similar from this article. Fortunately it was just physical and emotional abuse, not sexual.

  24. So I was a little confused by the use of the term “status offense” above, because I had no idea what a “status offense” was and why it would justify imprisonment and torture.

    So I Googled “Mississippi status offense” and here is the definition I found:

    The most striking indicator of that is the number of training school students committed for so-called status offenses: under-age drinking and smoking, truancy, breaking curfew, running away and other things that are illegal only for minors.

    Fuck you, America.

  25. Fuck you, America.

    Aye, yo, I didn’t do it. Mississippi did it. I don’t claim Mississippi.

    I only do it to brown people. Foreign brown people.

  26. Here’s a question I’ve never known the answer to – I know it’s illegal to sell tobacco to someone under 18, but is it illegal to smoke or dip if you’re under 18? Is that some kind of criminal infraction with a penalty?

  27. I’m shocked the guards weren’t rapier.

  28. I guess “rapey-er” works better, since I’m not at all surprised that the guards weren’t thin swords.

  29. In 1984 I had the pleasure of attending a ‘fresh air fund’ summer camp type thing.

    Fresh Air Fund was a NYC program to ship inner city kids out of the ghettos and into these often hastily whipped together ‘summer camps’ for 2 months… i think the main idea was it kept them off the streets. It was subsidized by the state.

    Anyway, I ended up at one of these things at the age of 12 for reasons purely accidental. We didnt know what the deal was until i was dropped off. My mom got nervous when she saw a bus with “Pelham Park Juvenile Detention Center” etc. signs dumping out piles of some funky looking black and latino kids.

    Anyway, I spent a month at one of these things, and the “shackling kids to utility pole” thing when they acted up with standard operating procedure. It happened to me the very first night. We had a sadomasochistic councelor who liked to be known as “Ronbo”. He caught me and this other kid up talking & eating candy after hours, and to set an example to others, he dragged us out into the field and handcuffed us back to back on either side of a lightpole.

    He then went to his tent, and came back with dirty urderwear which he put over my head. Briefs.

    After about a half hour, I puked gummy bears into his underwear. I cried. This was the first night there.

    The remaining time at camp included 1 box-cutter slashing, 3 or 4 unarmed fights, a few hours locked in a stuffy utility closet, a major case of arson (a few kids sucessfully burned down one of the only proper buildings at the camp), being pinned down and having Nair shot in your eyes and all over your head so your eyebrows come off and your hair goes patchy, and the first handjob of my life.

    I know what you’re thinking. No – I was actually the *recipient*.

    I know what you’re thinking. It was a *girl*

    So basically, what i’m saying is, this whole story really brought back some fond memories.

    On the last night of camp, a black kid named Henry Clay (i will never forget his name. Even at 12 I was like, “wasnt that,like, a 19th century statesman”) jumped me with a bunch of friends in retaliation for a singlehanded asswhooping i’d given him earlier. Someone threw a rock at me and it cut my scalp and gave me a concussion. I wandered around camp in a daze (while, I will add, there was the huge aforementioned fire starting in the distance) until a car found me. They thought i’d been stabbed multiple times because so much blood came from my scalp that my shirt was soaked in a big V, shoulder to shoulder. I got some stitches and I was all good.

    I saved that t-shirt, unwashed, until i was like 15. It got crusty.

  30. , but is it illegal to smoke or dip if you’re under 18? Is that some kind of criminal infraction with a penalty?

    Hmm.

    Good question. Im pretty sure it varies state by state.

    Here’s Minnesota =

    If you are under the age of 18 years, it is
    illegal to possess, smoke, chew, or ingest
    tobacco. It is also illegal to purchase or
    attempt to purchase tobacco.

    If you are under the age of 18 years and
    commit a second or subsequent juvenile
    tobacco offense, your license may be
    revoked until you reach the age of 18, or
    for a period of one year, whichever is
    longer.

    Anyone who sells tobacco to a person
    under the age of 18 years will be charged
    an administrative penalty.

    So, in this case, yes.

    I think other states, like WV, are cool with 16yr olds smoking. Most of the time cops just ignore the issue unless the kid is like, 10. Then they just try and scare the shit out of them and send them crying to their mom.

    Trust me, i know. 🙂

  31. I saved that t-shirt, unwashed, until i was like 15. It got crusty.

    I was gonna say you got issue, but that’s readily apparent. Why I am thinking of George Carlin: “Hey, who stole my collection of used bandages?”

  32. T | February 26, 2008, 4:30pm | #

    I was gonna say you got issue(s), but that’s readily apparent

    You’d be surprised. I’ve found myself much more grounded than most people who’ve never experienced anything particularly trumatic at all. This was only one of many little youthful semi-nightmare scenarios.

    I like to think of it as *character*, really.

    In my view, if you’ve never had to defend yourself from viscious gangs of predatory teenagers with socks filled with sand&rocks, assorted dangerous areosols etc, then in my view, you’ve still got some growing up to do.

    Funny, I’d tried looking this place up before, and not been able to find much about it, but apparently its locatable on map engines…

    http://newyork.hometownlocator.com/maps/feature-map,ftc,2,fid,2100138,n,Camp%20Hemlock.cfm

    Only about 1.5-2hrs from the city really. Without traffic of course.

  33. We need a party in the US called the Jeremiad party.

    Candidates of that party will travel around chronicling shit like this and declaring that God will punish the US if it continues to be allowed to happen.

    Sure, there is no God or anything, but it would still be fun if someone made the argument.

    That asshole Pat Robertson can claim God is punishing the US for letting women have jobs and not stoning gays, so the Jeremiad party can certainly claim that God will punish America if we don’t stop doing things like sending 10 year old’s who run away from home to camps to be raped and tortured, or like keeping drug use criminalized so we can send black kids to jail to work slave labor jobs, or like “losing” all the records at the Bureau of Indian Affairs so we can get away with not paying Native Americans the royalties we owe them as a matter of treaty.

    The party would have no positive platform at all, just a list of transgressions that had to be corrected or God would send terrorists to blow stuff up.

    “Woe unto thee, O America” could be on their buttons and bumper stickers and stuff.

    It would be great.

  34. The party would have no positive platform at all, just a list of transgressions that had to be corrected or God would send terrorists to blow stuff up.

    “Woe unto thee, O America” could be on their buttons and bumper stickers and stuff.

    Uhm. There already is a group like this.

    http://www.godhatesfags.com/audio/index.html

    They’re total dicks. But they do some catchy adaptations of patriotic songs

    America The Burning

    O wicked land of sodomites
    Your World Trade Center’s gone
    With crashing planes and burning flames
    To hell their souls have flown

    America, America
    God showed his wrath to thee
    He cursed this land with a terrorist’s hand
    To show his sovereignty

    O wicked land of sodomites
    Your Pentagon is square
    With crashing plane and burning flames
    They went to hell with flare

    America, America
    God showed his wrath to thee
    He cursed this land with his own hand
    To show his sovereignty

    O wicked land of sodomites
    You’re running from yourselves
    Your disobedience to God’s law
    Has jeopardized your health (and wealth)

    America, America
    God showed his wrath to thee
    He cursed this land with a sniper’s hand
    To show his sovereignty

    O wicked land of sodomites
    God struck the shuttle down
    With body parts and broken hearts
    He scattered them around (all over Texas)

    America, America
    God showed his wrath to thee
    He cursed this land with Columbia’s end
    To show his sovereignty

    O wicked land of sodomites
    The flames are burning high
    With dozens dying in the fires
    God’s laughing at your cry

    America, America
    God showed his wrath to thee
    He smote this land with a fiery hand
    To show his sovereignty

    O wicked land of sodomites
    God burned Rhode Island down
    They made a fag their Providence Mayor
    God’s answer is profound

    America, America
    God showed his wrath to thee
    He smote this land with his furious hand
    To show his sovereignty

  35. I understand that, Gilmore, but I’m talking about a party that would identify, you know, actual injustices or transgressions. Not that God Hates Fags shit, but “God Hates CIA Torturers” or “God Hates FEMA Profiteers” or “God Hates Karen Tandy” or stuff like that.

  36. yeah, I know, but either way it’s the same M.O., and these guys like, have the LOCKDOWN on the whole style.

    Jesus,(no pun)… And their website is actually pretty awesome! I mean, whoever designed it… plus, they have like their own version of YouTube. Its incredible. And they only have like 2 dozen members. In Kansas! What the fuck?? Most Major Label rock bands can’t whip up something this snappy.

    Personal favorite video title (and it’s some seriously stiff competition) =

    Fag Pimp Hypocrite Bush!

    http://www.signmovies.net/videos/news/2008/20080215_fag-pimp-hypocrite-bush.html

  37. Fluffy – if only it could happen. It would be the least successful political party in the history of the world. If there’s one thing people don’t like to hear, it’s that their collective will (whatever the fuck that is) is being used to evil ends.

    That’s one of the reasons Ron Paul had such a hard time – when he tried to explain reasons for 9/11, it comes across as “blaming america.” But we’re blameless as the clean driven snow!

  38. Jesse,

    Thank you for calling attention to this.

    For what it’s worth, a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center was instrumental in finally getting Columbia shuttered, and the report that you’re quoting from is hosted on the SPLC’s website, but the report itself wasn’t prepared by the SPLC. It was prepared by investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice, who were investigating as part of an earlier DOJ lawsuit over the treatment of child prisoners. Of course, I’d be the last person to say that being produced by federal prosecutors makes it more reliable, but in any case, that’s the provenance.

    Jennifer,

    Charges? Hell, none of them will even be fired. The state government’s current plan is to shut down Columbia and let all the former employees who turned it into such a hellhole torture camp transfer and metastasize throughout the rest of the Mississippi prison system.

    J sub D:

    I initially expected something similar from this article. Fortunately it was just physical and emotional abuse, not sexual.

    Unfortunately the Department of Justice’s report isn’t the only story out of Columbia. Besides the sexual humiliation involved in guards forcing teenaged children to strip naked before they are locked in the “dark room,” and reports by girls at Columbia of a peeping-tom prison guard (both reported in the DOJ’s report), there’s also been at least one federal lawsuit filed over a male prison guard’s repeated rape of a 14 year old girl imprisoned at Columbia.

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