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DOJ Settlement to Improve Conditions at Mississippi Juvenile Facility

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has reached a settlement to address conditions at Mississippi’s Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center (LCJDC). The settlement agreement is the culmination of a DOJ investigation and a March 31, 2011 findings letter from the department concerning security-related issues and living conditions at LCJDC.

The DOJ found numerous areas of deficiency at the juvenile facility, including the use of force and restraints, abuse investigations, suicide prevention and use of solitary confinement. The settlement, approved by the federal district court on June 18, 2015, addresses each of those areas.

To ensure that juvenile offenders’ mental health issues are identified and addressed, LCJDC agreed to administer a screening tool “within no more than three (3) hours of admission.” It will also supply an orientation within eight hours of admission to provide a “clear explanation” of facility rules, how to obtain medical and mental health care, use the grievance system and report abuse.

Further, LCJDC agreed to revamp its classification system to assure juveniles are classified within 24 hours of admission and placed in housing units consistent with their risk level. It will also change its use of force policies and train staff in “conflict management, de-escalation of confrontations, crisis intervention, management of assaultive behavior, minimizing trauma involved in the use of force, and the facility’s continuum of methods of control.”

New policies will emphasize the least amount of force is to be used, and that force shall only be applied in “exceptional situations where the youth currently is physically violent, poses an immediate danger to self or others, and where LCJDC has attempted a graduated set of interventions that avoid or minimize the use of force or restraints.” The agreement provides that staff “shall not shackle or restrain youth to their beds as a disciplinary measure.”

Additionally, the settlement ends the use of solitary confinement as a form of discipline and limits solitary to a cool-down period not to exceed one hour. It also requires changes in policies related to suicide prevention and mental health care, medical care, due process, incident reporting, sanitation, fire safety and security staffing.

“This agreement will help protect children who are in custody and ensure that they are detained under conditions that are secure, safe, and appropriate,” said Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General over the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. See: United States v. Leflore County, Mississippi, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Miss.), Case No. 4:15-cv-00059-NBB-JMV.

While the settlement resolved issues initially raised by the DOJ at LCJDC, it did not end problems at the juvenile facility. In a January 12, 2016 press release, DOJ officials stated they had conducted another review that determined the facility was in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“The Justice Department investigation found that the detention center school has failed to implement appropriate policies and procedures to identify, locate and evaluate children with disabilities for special education services,” according to the DOJ’s press release. “For instance, the detention center has no intake practices to ask children if they received special education services at their home school. And once children are in the detention center school, there are no procedures to observe and respond to student performance that may indicate a special education need.”

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta noted that “Students with disabilities do not forfeit their rights to special education services simply because they are accused of or have committed juvenile offenses. Agencies that are involved in the provision of special education of children in correctional facilities, such as the Mississippi Department of Education, must continue to ensure that students receive special education services even while incarcerated.”

Mississippi state officials took control over the Leflore County school system in 2013, including at LCJDC. Should the state fail to improve educational opportunities for disabled juveniles at the facility, another settlement with the DOJ may be on the near horizon.

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Related legal case

United States v. Leflore County