Grand jury likens cells in juvenile center to kennels'

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
March 30, 2002
A Lauderdale County grand jury compared cells at the juvenile detention center to kennels in a report released Friday by courthouse officials.
The grand jury's report was issued after a tour of county-owned property that also included the Lauderdale County Detention Facility, the sheriff's department, the courthouse and the crime lab.
The H.C. Mike Watkins Juvenile Detention Center was one of the first facilities of its kind in Mississippi. It will be 27 years old in July, and has drawn criticism from every grand jury that has convened over the last five years.
Barbara Vinzant, director, said she understands how grand jurors feel when they inspect the building.
Conditions inside
The center houses minors who have committed crimes. The maximum stay is 21 days, and offenders are sometimes as young as 8 years old. Vinzant says the center operates under guidelines provided by the American Juvenile Justice Association. With the exception of square-feet-per-inmate, she said, the facility meets the association's standards.
Conditions inside are less than ideal, she said, but many of the facility's more unpleasant aspects are made necessary by the behavior of its inmates.
The juveniles sleep in steel bunk beds bolted to the floor. If wood-frame beds are used, Vinzant said, the juveniles break them up and sharpen the pieces to use as weapons. There are no lights in the cells because she can't find any kind of fixture that can't be destroyed.
The juveniles are released from their cells into a common area one at a time because otherwise they fight with each other.
Grand jurors recommend new building
The grand jury recommended that a new juvenile detention center be built, or that major renovation be done on the current building.
Vinzant agrees, but said she doesn't know where the money will come from now.
County supervisors announced earlier this year that they planned to apply for a $5 million line of credit through the Mississippi Development Bank. The state program provides loans at 2.95 percent interest. The board released a list of potential projects the money might be used for, including improvements at the juvenile center.
A citizens' activist group petitioned successfully for a countywide referendum on the issue, and the supervisors voted to abandon their application at a March 4 meeting.
Vinzant said there have been some improvements over the last several years including a fire alarm system for the whole building, fire doors in the boys and girls dormitories that can be released at the press of a button and wiring upgrades in the laundry room.
The large-scale renovation recommended by the grand jury, however, is on hold indefinitely.