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Mississippi Juvenile Legal Access Class Action Settled

On January 12, 2005, Mississippi settled a class action suit challenging a policy at the Colombia Training School (CTS) which severely limited residents' access to legal counsel.

CTS is a co-ed juvenile detention facility in Mississippi. The residents range in age from 10-18 years old. CTS was the subject of a 2002 report to the Mississippi Legislature, which found numerous deficiencies... in the areas of medical care, dental care, prevention of abuse, and treatment and programming for children with special needs.

Simultaneously, the United States Department of Justice, (DOJ), launched a sweeping investigation into the conditions at CTS. In June 2003, the DOJ announced its findings, which included particularly shocking and abusive conditions... including such inhumane institutional practices and hog-tying, pole-shackling, and prolonged isolation of suicidal youth in dark rooms without light, ventilation, or toilet facilities. DOJ also found rampant and unchecked staff-on-youth abuse, including physical assaults and chemical spray.

The DOJ's findings were well-publicized... Many parents with children confined in [CTS] were greatly alarmed... and... requested that attorneys from the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ') and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC') meet with their children.

In January 2004, SPLC attorney Sheila Bedi attempted to visit a CTS resident but was denied access. CTS Administrator Richard James informed Ms. Bedi that the only document he would accept to authorize a legal visit was in order from a state youth court judge, recognizing the attorney as counsel of record in the child's delinquency proceedings. James stated that because children at Colombia were in the custody of the State, written request by parents would not be honored.

On March 14, 2004, Rosetta Williams visited her son K.L.M. and observed dark bruises on his neck and wrists. K.L.M. said they were caused by staff earlier in the week. He was threatened with retaliation if he reported his wounds.

On March 15, 2004, Rosetta Williams informed James that her son ... wanted to meet with an attorney ... pursuant to [CTS] policy, K.L.M.'s request to meet with counsel was refused.... James informed Ms. Williams that no child would be permitted to meet with an attorney in the absence of a youth court order.

On April 13, 2004, counsel for SPLC and MJC brought a federal class action on behalf of K.L.M. and all other CTS residents. They alleged that the State's obstructionist policy" deprived CTS residents of meaningful, effective, and adequate access to the courts and to due process of law, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The suit was settled on January 12, 2005. Terms of the agreement require the state to: abandon its former policy of requiring a court order before a lawyer can communicate with a CTS resident; inform residents of the right to seek assistance of counsel; help residents make legal requests; and ensure that the requests are delivered. The settlement is a very good one," says SPLC and a lead counsel Danielle Lipow. But I wouldn't call it a model." In the interests of settlement, class counsel waived more than $30,000 in attorney fees that they were entitled to as prevailing parties. The plaintiff class was represented by Danielle Lipow and Sheila A. Bedi of SPLC and David M. Miller of MCJ. See: United States of American v. Mississippi/KLW v. James, USDC No. 3:03 cv 1354WSu (S.D. Miss. 2005).

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