Children at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center (40 E. McDowell Road, Jackson, Miss.) were abused, a lawsuit filed in 2011 alleged, which led to a federal consent decree forcing Hinds County to make changes to its operations.
Magistrate Judge F. Keith Ball is holding a hearing in his chambers today concerning the settlement that Southern Poverty Law Center and Disability Rights Mississippi reached with the county. The Zoom hearing, which is closed to the public, is part of an ongoing federal court supervision of the settlement agreement’s implementation.
The detention center houses minors on allegations of delinquency or adjudged as delinquent, even as advocates push for increasing the minimum age. Last year, such facilities in Mississippi could hold children as young as 10. The Mississippi Legislature increased the minimum age from 10 to 12 years in the 2021 session through Senate Bill 2282.
The National Juvenile Justice Network hailed the development. “The win is part of a larger wave of legislation that seeks to end the criminalization of very young children,” the organization wrote. “[C]alifornia, Massachusetts, and Utah (including Nebraska) have each set the highest minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction at 12 years old.” Connecticut and New York joined in 2021.
“Mississippi now joins the fold by ensuring children under 12 cannot be committed to youth facilities.”
Advocates: Increase Minimum Age to 14
The network, however, said that several states did not have a minimum age, making the United States an outlier concerning the prosecution of young children in court, and noted that 14 is the most common minimum age for criminal responsibility, internationally.
Because of the limited development of children under 14, the Equal Justice Initiative said they are often given protective status in various laws.
“Hundreds of state and federal laws—from child-labor laws and compulsory education to age-based restrictions on driving, marriage, and even tattoos—recognize that young children need greater protection and more supervision than older teens,” the organization added. “More so than older teens, they are vulnerable to peer pressure and quick to comply with the wishes of authority figures, making them highly susceptible to false confessions.”
“Children under 14 were especially immature and impulsive,” it said. “They have not yet developed mature judgment or the ability to accurately assess risks and consequences.”
Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, which consisted of current and former administrators of youth-justice agencies, explained that detention impacts on children are far-reaching and recommended that all states set a minimum age of juvenile-court jurisdiction at 14 or older.
“Confinement in a detention center, correctional institution or other out-of-home facility is especially dangerous for young children,” the group said. “A federal survey found that abuse in youth facilities is highly correlated with age: more than one-fourth of confined children under 13 suffered abuse in their facilities versus, about twice the share of youth ages 17 and above.”
The Gault Center, formerly the National Juvenile Defender Center, also advocates increasing the minimum age to prosecute children. “States should strengthen community support outside the justice system and set the minimum age of prosecution at 14 years old,” it said. “And although common-sense knowledge of child development and international standards compel the removal of younger children from the juvenile legal system, states have yet to heed the call.”
“Because younger children are inherently more vulnerable, they should not be subject to the potential harms of juvenile court and the life-long consequences that stem from such involvement.”
Jackson, Miss.-based Families as Allies Executive Director Joy Hogge asserts that increasing the minimum age, which she supports, is not enough. She cites a need for a supportive network for kids.
“Our goal is to provide enough support and enough intervention so that children won’t need to come out of the home,” she said in a phone interview with the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 13.
“That needs to go along with the goal of making sure that everyone’s at the table and figuring out (that) if we’re not going to use that intervention (via detention)—which probably is not appropriate—what do we need to get in place that will be supportive of that, and that will work and will help everyone work together to achieve the goals that we all want for that child?”
Detention Center Consent Decree—A History
One of the first inklings of trouble at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center involved a male detainee repeatedly banging his head on the wall in an apparent suicide attempt in 2009, nine years after the $8.9 million 84-youth-capacity facility opened.
Then-Hinds County District 3 Supervisor Peggy Calhoun brought the county board’s attention to that incident and five other suicide attempts that happened in May of that year.
“If a child is hurt at the center, then the Board of Supervisors is liable,” Calhoun said. “It appears that there have been efforts to cover up these incidents.”
Shortly after, in June 2009, Disability Rights Mississippi, in partnership with SPLC, started conducting findings on the condition of the center, which later morphed into a case filed with the U.S. Southern District of Mississippi Court two years later, in June 2011, on behalf of the residents.
The alleged abusive treatment toward the young people at the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center included excessive cell confinement, inadequate mental-health care, verbal abuse, and inadequate family unification and community reintegration, and they asked for injunctive relief. Hinds County denied the allegations.
“The plaintiffs represent a class of children who have suffered abuse and live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Henley-Young,” SPLC and DRM said in the complaint. “Henley-Young’s inhumane and unconstitutional practices include regularly isolating children in small cells for 20-23 hours a day and subjecting them to sensory deprivation.”
“Children languid in their cells receiving sporadic access to educational services and counseling services; children with serious mental-health needs are frequently denied the services necessary to treat their conditions.”
They complained that staff tormented youth, including those living with mental illness, with threats.
“Children uniformly describe Henley-Young as a facility where youth languish without necessary mental-health services, are regularly verbally abused, harassed, and taunted by officers, and are almost always confined in small cells for approximately 20 hours a day,” the plaintiffs continued.
The lead plaintiff in the class action, a 12-year-old dealing with mental-health problems, complained about the Henley-Young Detention Center’s practices, as did other inmates.
Youth detention in Hinds County also faced a national investigation and allegations of corruption and sexual abuse of children back in the early 1990s when then television executive (and later mayor) Frank Melton took children out of the previous youth-detention facility without following proper protocols. Then Frank Bluntson (a radio personality and later a city councilman ) directed the center. Both men are now deceased.
Hogge: There Are Very Few ‘Just Bad Kids’
Disability Rights Mississippi staked its claim to intervene on behalf of the center’s residents on the prevalence of underlying severe mental illness among them.
“A significant number of the youth who are detained at Henley-Young live with disabilities—including various forms of mental illness and learning disabilities,” the suit alleged.
Mississippi State University researchers Angela A. Robertson, Patricia L. Dill, and Jonelle Husain and University of Mississippi Medical Center researcher Cynthia Undesser reported in their 2014 work, “Prevalence of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Disorders among Incarcerated Juvenile Offenders in Mississippi,” that “Juvenile offender studies suggest that there is substantial overlap between serious delinquency with drug use, problems in school, and mental-health problems.”
Most of the study’s nearly 500 adolescents from 12 to 18 years old—317 in juvenile detention centers and 165 in training schools—met the criteria for at least one mental disorder, they explained.
Families as Allies Director Hogge said last week that she is not surprised at that high percentage.
“A child may be acting out whatever their mental-health challenges are, and then there’s that whole issue of unresolved trauma because we know that can lead to children acting out in certain ways,” Hogge said. “They don’t know what to do with those significant feelings that different types of trauma have caused.”
“And then that can look like, ‘Oh, that’s just a bad kid,’ she added. “And there are very few ‘just bad kids,’; that may very well be a child who has a lot of trauma, and they haven’t come into contact with the right kind of resources to help them deal with it.”
As opposed to between 14% and 20% of young people in the general population with a diagnosable mental disorder, the researchers said that it is between 71% and 85% for the inmates, depending on assessment method and one-third have co-occurring mental-health and substance-abuse disorders.
The researchers reported that more than half said they had seen a mental-health professional in the past, and a quarter reported a psychiatric hospitalization. A third reported that they had intentionally hurt themselves in the past, and one out of every 12 said they were currently suicidal.
Although 66% admitted to alcohol and marijuana use in the year before incarceration, only 15% reported substance-abuse treatment history.
Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice explained the mental-health toll of detention on children. “Children involved in the legal system suffer physical and mental health problems at far greater rates than the general child population, and a wealth of research finds that involvement in the legal system—particularly the experience of confinement—exacerbates rather than improves children’s well-being,” they wrote.
The Mississippi researchers suggested routine mental-health screening on all juveniles placed in secure detention facilities to identify those who need treatment services.
County Appoints Interim Director
While Hinds County denied all the allegations in the 2011 suit, it settled with the plaintiffs to resolve all of the raised issues by 2013. However, nine years later, in 2022, the matter is still far from resolved.
On Jan. 3, Fernandeis A. Frazier resigned as the director of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, further increasing the uncertainty revolving around the center. He declined to comment on that move when the Mississippi Free Press reached out to him by phone on Wednesday, Jan. 5. “I’m not interested in having a conversation about the detention center or anything in conjunction with Hinds County,” he said. “I have no interest in communicating about anything, anything about Hinds County.”
County administrator Kenny Wayne Jones appointed former interim sheriff Marshand Crisler as a temporary replacement starting Wednesday, Jan. 5, two weeks before the Jan. 20 hearing. Crisler lost the Nov. 3, 2021, sheriff’s election to Tyree Jones.
Hinds County Board of Supervisors President and District 3 Supervisor Credell Calhoun said that Crisler’s appointment is about how he will help with the consent decree.
“I hope he’ll help out a lot,” Calhoun told the Mississippi Free Press on the phone on Wednesday, Jan. 5. “He is familiar with (the consent decree).”
“Right now we are under the crunch time that we would be having the hearings and all of that presumably before (the court) takes charge of it,” he added. “So we want somebody to help us out real quick.”
Following a series of extensions of the consent decree, Chief District Judge Daniel P. Jordan signed a third amended consent decree in April 2019, as the county slowly inched toward compliance over the previous eight years.
Consent Decree Extended Five Times
The consent decree, which entered into effect in March 2012, was extended in April 2014, amended and extended in March 2016, and amended and extended again in March 2018. In February 2019, Judge Jordan ruled from the bench to extend the consent decree for two years until March 28, 2021.
On April 2, 2021, Judge Jordan extended the consent decree for a fifth time, until March 28, 2023.
Part of the initial consent decree was the appointment of Michigan-based juvenile detention expert Leonard Dixon as the court monitor. His responsibilities included writing regular compliance reports.
In his latest piece dated January 2019, out of the 71 provisions of the consent decree, he judged that less than half—35—were in the “substantial compliance” category. Thirty were in “partial compliance,” five were in “beginning compliance,” and one was in “non-compliance.” The latter involved having the psychiatrist and/or counselors review the records of residents to ensure proper care.
“Now, the hiring of a full-time clinical psychologist is a must to help move the remaining provision to substantial compliance,” Dixon wrote in 2019. “The county should keep moving in this positive direction and maintain it.”
The Mississippi Free Press contacted Hinds County Board of Supervisors attorney Tony Gaylor for comment by phone Wednesday, Jan. 5, and Thursday, Jan. 6, but received no response. He did not react to emails sent on both days, or the one sent on Thursday, Jan. 14.
Disability Rights Mississippi did not reply to phone calls to its office on Thursday, Jan. 6, and to emails sent to them that day and on Thursday, Jan. 13, for comments on the case. In a phone call, SPLC’s Media Strategist, Larry Hannan, said on Thursday, Jan. 6, that the organization would need to confer with its partner in the case, Disability Rights Mississippi, before speaking with the Mississippi Free Press. Since then, he has not communicated with this reporter despite a reminder email sent on Thursday, Jan. 13.
Items at the “beginning compliance” level at Henley-Young, according to court monitor Dixon’s 2019 report, included implementing treatment plans for youth following case adjudication, providing adequate medical care, administering comprehensive mental-health treatment plans within 72 hours of admittance, and creating an opportunity for residents to meet with their attorney or resident court counselor.
“Again, based on my most recent visit and review of documents, residents are still complaining that they have not had the opportunity to speak with their attorneys,” the court monitor wrote. “In my review of the records, there is still no indication that attorneys had visited their client.”
“Based on my interviews with residents, there continues to be no indication and no documentation that they had the opportunity to meet with their public defender prior to or after their court hearings,” Dixon concluded.
Fight Over Population Limit
The third amended consent decree, agreed upon by the parties in April 2019 is the current legal framework for improvements to the facility.
One of the provisions requires Henley-Young to adhere to the monitor’s recommended 32-resident capacity limit on an average daily population and deny any admission that would put it above that number.
Later, Hind County waffled on this, and the plaintiffs returned to the court for clarification on July 1, 2021.
The plaintiff told the court that since September 2017, the facility had housed children criminally charged as adults long-term in pre-trial detention for up to two years.
They told the court that on July 1, 2021, during a “progress call,” the county said that the consent decree does not cover such children, and the 32-resident cap does not apply to them. They disagreed with this.
Hinds County contended that the limit cannot reasonably apply to juveniles charged as adults because the county cannot determine their number or how fast their cases will move.
“With the recent rise in violent crime, the bottleneck of cases that exist within the Hinds County judicial system resulting partially from the pandemic, and the high bonds administered by Hinds County judges, it is likely that the population of JCAs housed at Henley-Young will exceed 32 residents,” they said.
Chief Judge Jordan, however, ruled that the limit still stands regardless of those housed there. He wrote on August 21, 2021, siding with the plaintiffs, that the words of the consent decree “clearly place an overall cap on the average daily population of 32 residents, as opposed to a limit on the number of residents under Youth Court jurisdiction.”
Christopher Freeze, former FBI special agent, told the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday, Jan. 13, that society needs to look at incarcerating juveniles.
“We’ve been putting kids in various detention facilities for long periods of time, and it’d be hard-pressed to show that that’s really making a difference in our overall crime rates, overall betterment of society,” he said.
“So, I think that’s definitely something that needs to have some serious research done and serious consideration as to whether or not it’s an effective means for a change in behavior.”