richard-cohen_web.jpg“D.W.” had been confined to the juvenile detention center for only a week when he tried to hang himself with a bed sheet.

His mental health had deteriorated rapidly during his confinement at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Miss. But rather than provide him with counseling, guards at the detention center harassed and taunted him.
They told him his mother no longer cared and would not visit him again. They said they could do whatever they wanted to him.

That wasn’t some empty threat. The 17-year-old African-American youth endured a brutal physical assault by guards who slammed his face into a concrete floor.

Unfortunately, D.W.’s story isn’t unique. It echoes the stories of more than 30 other children who spent time at the detention center, which is operated for profit by a private corporation called, strangely, the Mississippi Security Police.

In separate interviews, these young people said they were confined to filthy, bug-infested cells for 23 hours a day with no adequate mental health or education services, and guards who frequently
resorted to violence.  The detention center was so overcrowded that many children slept on the floor next to dirty toilets. Infections were rampant. The whole place smelled of human waste.

Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class action lawsuit to stop this shocking child abuse.

It’s important to remember that these children are not hardened criminals. Most are accused of minor, nonviolent offenses and are simply awaiting court hearings.  Incredibly, some are even confined for “crimes” like truancy and curfew violations.

Our broken system of juvenile justice allows such horrendous conditions to flourish. Across the country, thousands of children – disproportionately black and many suffering from mental disabilities – are being needlessly incarcerated for petty offenses.

Often, vulnerable children caught up in this system are thrown away for the sake of corporate profits. That was the case in Pennsylvania, where two judges recently pleaded guilty to sending thousands of children to private detention centers in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks.  The New York Times recently described how the youths in Luzerne County, Pa., faced court proceedings that lasted less than two minutes on average. Workers at detention centers knew in advance how many new arrivals to expect.

We would never treat our own children this way. And that’s the problem. We don’t see these children as our own. Instead of giving them the educational or mental health services they need, we treat a truant like a career criminal. And in the process, we’ve nurtured an industry that turns a profit every time we throw away a young life.

As a society, we are facing a crucial decision: We can continue to criminalize our children and groom them for adult prisons.  Or, we can invest in programs that help rather than harm them. 

The choice should be clear.

Richard Cohen is the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.