P&A has access to juvenile jail, judge rules

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A federal judge ruled July 25 in favor of Disability Rights Mississippi in a case involving the rights of Protection and Advocacy organizations to monitor conditions for people with mental disabilities in juvenile jails.

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In a lawsuit filed June 7, Disability Rights Mississippi and the Southern Poverty Law Center charged that Hinds County officials had blocked the two advocacy groups’ access to the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in Jackson, Miss. in retaliation for a class action lawsuit they filed June 1 claiming the facility incarcerates juveniles in conditions that constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In subsequent discussions, county officials agreed the two advocacy groups have the right to interview people with mental illnesses in the facility. However, a Hinds County Youth Court judge ruled July 1 in favor of the county’s contention that the advocacy groups could neither interview residents without mental disabilities, even if they have knowledge of potential cases of abuse and neglect, or bring mental health professionals to the facility to determine whether residents contain mental illnesses.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi overturned both of these exceptions.

“The P & A statutes reflect a strong public interest in protecting those with mental illnesses, and limiting a P & A service from fully exercising its authority places residents with mental illnesses at increased risk of harm,” the court stated.

Both advocacy groups regularly monitor conditions at the facility, with Disability Rights Mississippi serving as the state’s designated Protection and Advocacy organization. Under federal law, every state which accepts certain federal funds must designate either a state agency or private nonprofit as its Protection and Advocacy organization.

Hinds County argued that the 1986 Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act does not allow Disability Rights Mississippi “unfettered access to the facilities.” In response, the federal judge stated that Disability Rights Mississippi’s “right to monitor compliance” with federal law at the facility includes “reasonable access to non-disabled people.”

The county also argued the organizations couldn’t seek bring mental health professionals into the facility because the Protection and Advocacy statutes lack language similar to the “child find” requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to seek out children with disabilities.

The judge rejected this argument because it would not allow Disability Rights Mississippi to ensure it was representing all individuals eligible for protection under disability laws. The judge characterized the county’s position as a “Catch 22” because the state was both claiming Disability Rights Mississippi lacked evidence that certain people have mental disabilities while denying the organization the ability to search for evidence.

The court also rejected the county’s contention that the advocacy groups must notify Assistant Youth Court Defender Brandon Dorsey to enter the facility.

DisAbility Rights Washington, the sponsor of DisAbility Rights Galaxy, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.