An Epidemic of Abuse Inside Juvenile Institutions


At the close of my last commentary (“More Abuse in Youth Prisons”) I suggested doing a simple search on the Internet and type in words like “abuse in juvenile institutions” and select some states at random.  I said at the time that I would continue my search.  And so I did.  And what I found was way beyond what I expected.  I don’t often like to use the word “epidemic” since it is so value-loaded and defies precise definition.  One definition from Webster’s includes “widespread growth” and so I think I can safely say that abuse within juvenile institutions can be described as an “epidemic.”


I started my search with South Dakota, since I recall the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice being consulted for a scandal that was occurring there within some of their juvenile prisons.  I first found a story called “Cape Fear,” which appeared in Mother Jones back in December, 2000. The link brought me to a story about the death of a 14-year-old girl in a boot camp.  I read the story and as I scrolled down to the bottom I saw two links and the first one was called “BOOT CAMP FOR KIDS: Torturing Teens for Fun and Profit.”   So I clicked on this and what I found was a list of 207 news reports on abuse inside not only boot camps but other institutions where kids are locked up. Not only this, but there were other links to more stories, such as one that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times called “For their own good: a St. Petersburg Times special report on child abuse at the Florida School for Boys.”  The story, which made quite a splash when it came out in April, 2009, is about a group of men in their 50s who have come forward to tell of the abuse they suffered at this prison.  They testified that bodies were buried on the premises. (It reminded me of the bodies buried at an Arkansas prison about 50 years ago.) A time-line shows that investigations of abuse began in 1903 when a Florida senate committee said that “We have no hesitancy in saying, under its present management it is nothing more nor less than a prison, where juvenile prisoners are confined." A 1968 report called this institution "Hell's 1,400 Acres.”


There are several articles concerning scandals within the State of Texas. One story noted that “Thousands of juvenile inmates could be back out on the streets within a few months -- many who committed crimes in East Texas. That's the latest in a scandal within the Texas Youth Commission, where there have been allegations of improper conduct and sexual abuse at TYC facilities.”  Within one institution a youth said "When they slammed my head against the concrete, they tried to move the camera so it wouldn't see." 


Then there is the story of one facility described as follows: “The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, MA, uses cruel "aversive therapy" on children with autism, depression, and mental retardation. It's the only school in the US that allows painful shocks of children, sometimes tying them down for long sessions of shocks. ‘Hot-saucing’, extreme food deprivation, and other corporal punishments are routine and frequent.”


The situation has become so bad in the state of Mississippi that a special web site has been set up devoted to following the issue. It is called “A Mississippi Gulag.” Back in 2002 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) began an investigation of the conditions inside the Oakley Training School in Raymond, Mississippi and the Columbia Training School in Columbia, Mississippi.  In June, 2003 they issued a report submitted to the Governor of the state.  Among other things, the report concluded: “We find that conditions at Oakley and Columbia violate the constitutional and statutory rights of juveniles. Youth confined at Oakley and Columbia suffer harm or the risk of harm from deficiencies in the facilities’ provision of mental health and medical care, protection of juveniles from harm, and juvenile justice management. There are also sanitation deficiencies at Oakley. In addition, both facilities fail to provide required general education services as well as education to eligible youth…” 


Space does not permit a complete review of this report, but one thing caught my eye immediately and it was the following description of the training school for boys at Oakley: Oakley Training School, also known as the Mississippi Youth Correctional Complex, sits on approximately 1,068 acres of land surrounded by agricultural fields in Raymond, Mississippi, which is approximately 30 minutes outside of Jackson, Mississippi. Oakley is designed to function as a paramilitary program for delinquent boys.” This program the program imposes a military style discipline on youth and is purported to promote a “vigorous physical fitness training program.”


The state settled the suit and promised to make changes, but in 2006 a federal court monitor noted that “few if any changes have actually been made.”  It was revealed that: “In addition to being hog-tied and left for days in pitch-black cells, children ages 10 to 17 were sometimes sprayed with chemicals during mandatory exercises and forced to eat their own vomit. Other youth were forced to run with automobile tires around their necks or mattresses on their backs.” Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP) co-director Ellen Reddy stated that: "At best, the training schools do nothing but warehouse children. At worst, our children experience gross abuse and neglect when sent away from their home communities,"


In a separate story posted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s web site Rhonda Brownstein, the Legal Director of the Center, stated that: "What the investigation reported is nothing short of torture. These abuses are the kind of things you would hear about in some torture chamber in a Third World country. This is not how we treat our children in the United States."


In a related story it was reported that the SPLC has filed a lawsuit against Mississippi concerning the lack of mental health treatment available for youth charging that the state “fails to invest in community-based services and instead pumps the bulk of its resources into ineffective, expensive institutions.”


In October of 2009 the SPLC filed yet another suit concerning conditions at the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Center charging, among other things, that:


Youths endured physical and mental abuse as they were crammed into small, filthy cells and tormented with pepper spray for even minor infractions. Many of the youths had mental illnesses or learning disabilities. They were either awaiting court hearings or serving sentences for mostly non-violent offenses. During one three-week stretch, a 17-year-old girl, identified in the suit as J.A., languished in her small cell for 23 hours a day. Most of the children were allowed to leave their cells for only one to two hours a day.


Then there is the story of 14-year-old black youth named Martin Lee Anderson who died at the hands of several guards in a boot camp in Florida.  There is a video showing the incident.  An all-white jury acquitted the guards.


Most recently a series of reports in the New York Times revealed rampant abuse within several detention centers in New York State.  One story, dated August 25, 2009, noted that “Children at four juvenile detention centers in New York were so severely abused by workers that it constituted a violation of their constitutional rights, according to a report by the United States Department of Justice made public on Monday.”


These abuses are but a few examples of a history that dates back to houses of refuge in the early 19th century. How many deaths and abuses will it take to get the attention of those with the power and influence to do something about this? It is possible that the problem is ignored because most of these kids are minorities and/or from poor families?  What would happen if there were not organizations like the SPLC?



© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.