Lauderdale County juveniles get relief | 5/26/2010, 7 p.m.
  Youths confined at the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility were often kept in unsanitary cells at the detention facility for 23 to 24 hours a day. (Photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center)

For children and teens confined at a juvenile detention center in Meridian, Miss., the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center promises dramatic reforms that will ensure the facility helps put young lives back on track rather than pushing them further off course.

Youths confined at Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Facility can no longer be locked in unsanitary cells for 23 hours each day. They can no longer be punished with Mace or pepper spray, or by being locked into a mechanical “restraint chair”.

They will no longer sit idle in their cells with no meaningful rehabilitative, educational and recreational programs. And they will receive upgraded screening and treatment for their physical and mental health problems.

Officials in Lauderdale County, which operates the facility, also have agreed to consider alternatives to sending youths to the detention center – an approach that promises to better serve court-involved youth without tearing them apart from their families and communities. The settlement agreement, filed in late April, awaits approval in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division.  

Sheila Bedi, SPLC deputy legal director, credited Lauderdale officials with taking action to improve conditions at the facility long before the settlement agreement was reached.

“This agreement and the improvements already made demonstrate Lauderdale County’s strong commitment to protecting its detained youths,” Bedi said. “We’re looking forward to working with the county to ensure compliance with this settlement.”

Accounts of nightmarish conditions have dogged the 30-bed detention center for years. In an earlier assessment, a county grand jury wondered if the dilapidated facility was better suited to house animals instead of children.

Filed by the SPLC in November 2009, the federal class action lawsuit alleged that children and teens confined at the facility were subjected to “shockingly inhumane” treatment. They were crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with the arbitrary use of Mace as a punishment for even the most minor infractions – such as “talking too much” or failing to sit in the “back of their cells.”

Youths such as J.A., a 17-year-old girl identified in the suit by her initials, languished in small cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. And like the other children, she spent her days without reading or writing materials and without mental health or rehabilitative services.

There were no regular classes or recreation.

According to the lawsuit and Lauderdale County’s own grand jury reports, the cells contained nothing but a toilet, sink and bunk bed and were kept dark most of the time. The toilets and walls were stained with mold, rust and human waste. Children often slept on mats that smelled of urine. The children were not allowed to have soap in their cells to wash their hands or even an extra pair of underwear.