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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Home for Troubled Young Women in Some Trouble of its Own

NYTimes.com: Troubled adolescent girls at the Columbia Training School, a state-run reform school, were shackled for 12 hours a day and forced to eat and to use the bathroom while wearing the shackles, according to a federal lawsuit filed here Wednesday by five of the girls against Mississippi officials, including Gov. Haley Barbour.

Another girl at the school was sexually assaulted by a guard, and three of the shackled girls were able to cut themselves even though they had been placed on suicide watch, according to the suit, filed in Federal District Court by the Mississippi Youth Justice Project.

Most of the 30-odd girls at the school are being held for nonviolent offenses like drug possession or shoplifting, and most suffer from a mental disorder.

Reports of what the lawsuit calls “widespread abuse” at the Columbia school and a similar institution for boys, the Oakley school, are not new. In 1977 a federal judge curtailed the use of isolation cells and pushed for the hiring of doctors; five years ago the State Legislature found numerous inadequacies; and four years ago the Justice Department discovered that young offenders were being hogtied, shackled, choked and beaten. The department sued Mississippi over those and other abuses, and a settlement was reached in 2005.

But in a low-tax, low-spending state where, advocates say, care for troubled young offenders is a low public priority, abuses have persisted. At a legislative hearing last month there was testimony about guards’ making sexual propositions to the girls, shackling and other problems. Meanwhile, a recent report by a Justice Department official monitoring the settlement found persistent deficiencies, particularly in protecting the children from harm.

“When you look at adults who commit crimes or children who get into trouble, there’s not a lot of public pressure on politicians to do the right thing,” said Robert McDuff, a veteran Mississippi civil rights lawyer who helped draft the lawsuit. “And unfortunately the current administration has not paid the proper attention to correcting these problems.” Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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