June 10, 2014
For Immediate Release
June 10, 2014
JACKSON, Miss – Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, MS, is one of the 13 little-known CAR (Criminal Alien Requirement) prisons for immigrants in the United States. For the new report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas have investigated one CAR prison in Texas run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the same private prison company that operates Adams County Correctional Center. The report reveals inhumane conditions and egregious mistreatment of immigrants in prisons that enrich the for-profit prison industry at tremendous costs to taxpayers.
“Mississippi has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation – ranking behind only Louisiana, according to the Department of Justice. Criminalizing immigration means making it a part of a system that is already overburdened by a mass incarceration crisis and plagued by for-profit companies turning our tax dollars into revenue” said Jennifer Riley-Collins. “The abuse and mistreatment of prisoners in the Adams County facility lead to a riot in 2012. The facility holds nearly 2,500 inmates most of them convicted for being in the country illegally after deportation. These immigration cases should be handled by civil immigration authorities not the criminal justice system.”
The culmination of a four-year investigation, the report shows how the federal Bureau of Prisons incentivizes private prison companies to keep CAR prisons overcrowded and understaffed. The companies provide scant medical care that is often administered incorrectly, if delivered at all. At the CCA operated prison in Concho County, Texas, the 1,550 prisoners are reportedly packed so tightly that their beds spill out into the hallways.
As Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, explained, “The shameful conditions inside CAR prisons come from the government’s decision to allow the suffering inside these for-profit prisons. For instance, 10% of the bed space in CAR prisons is reserved for extreme isolation—nearly double the rate in normal federal prisons. I spoke to prisoners who spent weeks in isolation cells after being sent there upon intake—simply arriving at prison was the reason why they were locked in a cell and fed through a slot for 23 hours a day.”
CAR prisons hold non-citizens who have been convicted of crimes in the U.S., mostly for immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).
Read the report: www.aclu.org/CARabuse
May 08, 2014
The olive branch is universally recognized as a token of peace. In Mississippi's DeSoto County however, Olive Branch's high school embodies zero tolerance at its worst.
Dontadrian Bruce, a student at Olive Branch High School, didn't know what to expect when he was summoned to the assistant principal's office on a Monday morning last February. He was surprised when Assistant Principal Todd Nichols pointed to a photo of the 15-year-old posing with his classmates in front of their biology project — a model of the DNA molecule built with Lego blocks — and said, "This is a gang sign. You're a gang banger."
In the photo, Dontadrian, intending to represent his number on the school's football team, was holding up his thumb, forefinger and middle finger. That innocent body language, according to Nichols, was sure-fire evidence of affiliation with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang that has a strong presence in Memphis, Tenn., 20 miles northwest of Olive Branch.
"I said, 'I'm not in a gang,' but he said, 'Yes, you are. You're a gang banger,'" Dontadrian recalls. Over his vigorous protestations, Dontadrian was suspended for gang activity.
His mother, Janet Hightower, was shocked when she got a call telling her to pick up her son. "He'd never been in trouble at school," she says. "He's a good, respectful young man."
Three days later, Dontadrian appeared before a disciplinary hearing, where a school-delegated "gang specialist" presented a photo of a Vice Lords member making a gesture similar to Dontadrian's — proof, he said, that Dontadrian had indeed flashed a gang sign.
Hightower questioned the specialist's assertion. She had Googled images of gang signs and found only one photo of a sign resembling the one Dontadrian had made. It was the exact same photo offered by the gang specialist as irrefutable proof of gang activity. "He claimed my son was in a gang, but the only evidence he had was that one photo."
She was further dismayed by the school administration's failure to conduct a thorough inquiry before suspending Dontadrian. "They didn't look at his academic and disciplinary record before suspending him," she says. They never asked his teachers, his coach or his friends if he was in a gang. They should have investigated first, had a conversation with the people who know him."
Despite little concrete evidence beyond conjecture, the disciplinary hearing officer suspended Dontadrian for the remaining five months of the school year and recommended expulsion.
"Because I'm Black"
According to the school administration, the action was taken because Olive Branch High School is guided by a "zero-tolerance" policy regarding gang activity. But Hightower and her son take a different view.
"When he talks about what happened and why, he says, 'They think I'm in a gang because I'm Black,'" she said.
Hightower is less certain that race was the predominant factor in Dontadrian's excessive punishment, but thinks it may have played a part. "I love Olive Branch, and I love the way they teach," she says. "But I'm not going to say there aren't any prejudiced people in the schools here."
She contends that the school and district administrators are predisposed to overreaction, and that the application of zero-tolerance policies is inconsistent at best. This was underscored by the school's decision to suspend Dontadrian's older brother, Dontavis, who in an act of solidarity posed with a group of classmates for a photo in which they all held up the incriminatory hand gesture. In all, 10 students posed for the photo, yet only Dontavis was suspended.
"They suspended him for three days, but not the other kids," she says. "They all made the same sign. Why single out Dontavis?"
Olive Branch High School is just the latest DeSoto County school to expel a student for gang involvement based on little or no evidence. In 2009, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of a student at Southaven Middle School who was expelled after authorities illegally searched his cell phone and found photos that they claimed depicted "gang-related activity." In actuality, the photos depicted the student dancing in the bathroom of his own home.
Moreover, the district has a record of disproportionately disciplining students of color. In 2011 (the last year data was available), student enrollment was 60.4 percent white, 31.8 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic — yet Black and Hispanic students who were suspended totaled 58.8 percent.
Such disparities are hardly confined to DeSoto County, however. Nationally, according to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Civil Rights Data Collection, "Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students."
Harsh disciplinary policies have far-reaching impact on the educational development of the students affected, often resulting in lower school achievement and a spiral that singles out and criminalizes children who would otherwise be on a different path. This spiral, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, is delineated in the DOE guiding principles for improving school climate and discipline, issued in January 2014:
"Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system."
Determined to keep her son from entering a similar cycle of suspension, expulsion, or worse, Janet Hightower shrewdly enlisted local media in the effort to reverse the school's decision. After several area news reports on the incident aired, Dontadrian was permitted to return to school 21 days after his suspension.
"I don't think the school wanted the media attention," Hightower says. "They knew I wasn't going to back out or back down until their decision was overturned."
Dontadrian's return, however, came with a caveat: Hightower would have to agree to a one-year probation for her son. She refused.
"It would have been like saying my son was guilty," she explains. "Besides, it didn't make sense with their policy. Either he was guilty and should be expelled, or he was innocent and should be allowed back. Period."
Following a series of discussions between Hightower and Olive Branch's principal, the school finally backed down and removed the conditions from Dontadrian's return.
Hightower's advice to parents whose children are in a similar position: "If you think your child is innocent, fight back. Do whatever it takes."
"It Could Happen to Anyone's Child"
Dontadrian's suspension is behind him, but not its ramifications. The A and B student has struggled to catch up with his classmates, and brought home two F's in his third-quarter report card at the end of March.
"He's having a hard time," says his mother. "This is the first time he's ever had an F. It's really taking a toll on him trying to catch up on everything."
For Dontadrian, hard work, determination, and his family's support may well keep him out of the school-to-prison pipeline. But given the reality that children of color and children with disabilities are unduly affected by school disciplinary policies, how do other students avoid becoming statistics? The DOE guiding principles offer a solution:
"[s]chools should provide professional development and training to equip educators to […] respond to student misconduct fairly, equitably, and without regard to a student's personal characteristics (e.g., race, color, national origin, religion, disability, ethnicity, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or status as an English language learner, migrant, or homeless student)."
Meanwhile, Dontadrian's expulsion has turned Hightower into a vocal opponent of zero-tolerance policies, and school-to-prison pipeline issues in general. She currently is working with the ACLU's Mississippi affiliate to bring about a change in school policy that she hopes will prevent future incidents for all children in the DeSoto County School District.
"It happened to my son," she says. "If it doesn't get fixed, it could happen to anyone's child."
April 10, 2014
We're co-hosting the 7th Annual Criminal Justice Reform Conference with Jackson State University's Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology and the Mississippi Public Defender Association. The conference will take place on Friday, April 11th and Saturday, April 12th from 8:00am until 5:00pm at Jackson State University's College of Liberal Arts in the Dollye M.E. Robinson Building.
Below is the conference program as well as information about continuing legal education.
April 01, 2014
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Dr. Martin Luther King
A year ago, I wrote an email to my pastor advising him of my decision to accept the task of directing the work of the ACLU of Mississippi. On this the anniversary of my first year as the Executive Director, I would like to share excerpts from this personal communication.
As you may know God has placed in me a passion to stand in the gap for others and to extend equality and justice to those less fortunate than some of us. I know that Isaiah 61 is the call God has on my life to minister to the neglected, the informed, and the poor. My gift includes a boldness and fearlessness to give voice to the voiceless and those others just refuse to hear. Like the Lord I love justice. This is what I am anointed to do.
God has opened the door for me to return to my passion. I have been offered and have accepted the position of Executive Director of the Mississippi affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
As I completed law school and prepared to leave MS, the Holy Spirit told me to stay for "there is still work to be done". I did that and was not only successful in my task but as a result of the work God gave me to do significant changes were made in MS's juvenile defense system. All Glory given to the Father. After many years of fighting institutions . . . I grew weary. . . . I am renewed and ready to return to the fight for freedom and justice for all. There is yet still work to be done. I solicit your prayers.
Please know my belief in and reliance on God's word have not wavered. It is God who has brought me this far and it is He who will lead me on. I believe it is God who has brought me to this hour in my life. The ACLU under my direction will tackle many issues which will prayerfully make Mississippi a more even playing ground.
I wanted to discuss this with you because many people forget that the ACLU's mission is to defend the Constitution. This mission which includes voter rights, racial justice, education rights, health care disparities, access to the courts etc. (issues important to the African American community and other disenfranchised populations) is often forgotten when issues such as women's right to make their own health care decisions are overshadowed by abortion debates.
As the ED of ACLU-MS, I will also be the spokesperson for our work. On occasion, however, the position I take may differ from yours. . . . I would ask that you respect that as I extend justice to some I may be asked to extend justice to all.”
I shared this letter not to promote my passion but the commitment shared by the team of social justice professionals that make up the staff of the ACLU of MS. My story is but one example of the conscience decision it takes to do the work we do to bring about positive change. The positions we take are not often not popular or safe but they are necessary as someone must stand in the gap.
The ACLU of MS has assembled a team of guardians who stand ready to defend the Constitution and extend civil liberties to all Mississippians. This year alone we stood in the gap with a child who had been literally left behind by the bus when his school unconstitutionally denied his right to attend school. We stood with a doctoral student when she was racially profiled. We stood with a Sikh truck driver when he was harassed not only by the highway patrol and discriminated against by judge before whom he was compelled to stand. We stood with the LGBT community when they stood at the Capitol to let policy makers know they are here and they count. We will continue to stand in defense to equal access to the voting booth. We will stand with women to ensure their right to make personal health care decision. We will continue to stand in protection of children against the funneling of the school to prison pipeline.
I start my second year knowing and more importantly wanting you to know that the ACLU of Mississippi will stand with you.
March 24, 2014
You may have heard recently about Dontadrian Bruce, the Mississippi high school student who was almost expelled for holding up the number "3" with his fingers in a photo taken by his science teacher. Dontradian is number 3 on the football team – and despite his being an A/B student with no history of serious disciplinary problems, the school said he was making a gang sign.
This isn't the first time the school district has been quick to label a Black student a "gang member." And in fact the unnecessarily harsh treatment of students of color for misbehavior—or perceived misbehavior—at school is a huge problem across the country. Too many young people are being pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems instead of given the chance to learn from their mistakes. This phenomenon is frequently referred to as the school-to-prison-pipeline.
New data from the federal government, released on Friday, shows just how serious the problem is—and highlights how students of color and those with disabilities are being systematically denied access to education. According to the new data, during the 2011-2012 school year, Black students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. And students with disabilities were more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their non-disabled peers. Both groups of students were also disproportionately likely to be referred to law enforcement and arrested at school.
To add further insult to injury, kids barely out of diapers are also being subjected to these harsh racially disparate forms of exclusionary discipline. The new data shows that Black preschoolers are more likely to face suspension. Black students represent only 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but make up 42 percent of students suspended once, and 48 percent of the students suspended more than once.
One could assume these statistics are the result of Black kids misbehaving more, but that's just not substantiated by facts. As experts at Indiana University recently pointed out, "the data are consistent: there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races." These experts also point out that disparities are often greatest for subjective offenses—like "disrespect"—rather than objective ones—like smoking.
What we do know to be true, however, is that keeping kids out of school will harm them – by making them more likely to fail classes, drop out and become involved with the juvenile justice system. We also know that several promising interventions exist that can help keep kids in school and reduce racial disparities in discipline.
Let's use them, because we need sensible school discipline policy not smaller handcuffs.
March 05, 2014
We spoke out earlier in the legislative session about some bad and some good bills. Now those bills have moved forward and are up for a vote in either the House or the Senate. Here’s an update on some of those bills and an opportunity to take action.
- Remember HB 49, the bill that would require drug testing for TANF recipients? That bill is still alive and likely to be voted on in the Senate.
Contact members of the Senate and tell them to oppose HB 49 and not to take away important resources for Mississippi’s neediest families!
- The Mississippi Student Safety Act is a bill that we want to move forward! SB 2594, is a bill designed to keep students safe by limiting the use of seclusion and restraint on students.
This act will ensure the safety of students in school and promote a positive culture and climate which has been shown to lead to greater academic achievement. A high percentage of students who have been restrained are not exhibiting behavior that would warrant those interventions and the students that are often affected by restraint and seclusion were young students with disabilities, often with no verbal means of communication.
Contact members of the House and tell them to protect our students and pass this bill!
- HB 765 and SB 2325, are disingenuous bills that would not accomplish what the title says they would do. They are both called the “Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act,” but do not create equal opportunity for students with special needs. The act restricts the academic programs offered to children with special needs. They violate a child's right to equal protection and discriminate against children with special needs attempting to exclude them from the civil right to education in public schools.
Contact your representative in both the House and the Senate and tell them that this act does not create equal opportunity for students with special needs and does the opposite.
- SB 2430, is a bill to require DNA collection from individuals arrested for a certain crime.
This bill violates equal protection, takes away right to privacy and could exacerbate racial disparities in our criminal justice system. We are innocent until proven guilty and innocent people don’t belong in a criminal database.
DNA collection, analysis and retention is expensive. Given the current economic conditions, storing genetic samples of individuals who have not and may not ever be convicted of a crime may not be a good use of resources.
Contact members of the House and tell them to oppose SB 2430 and protect the right to privacy given in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution!
For a full list of the 20 bills we are monitoring, please visit the legislative section in each of our Centers of Focus.
November 18, 2011
GULFPORT -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi filed suit Friday on behalf of a Gulf Coast woman, challenging her 2010 arrest for her peaceful protest of the BP oil spill.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Gulfport on behalf of Sandra Howard of Long Beach. The suit alleges Howard's constitutional rights were violated when she was prevented from engaging in a protest in a traditional public forum. It also alleges she was subjected to unlawful detention and seizure, and that her right to due process was violated.
The suit names the city of Long Beach, the Long Beach Police Department and Officers Shawn Johnson and Melissa Peterson.
The incident occurred June 12, 2010, after Howard walked onto a sidewalk in front of the Kangaroo Express gas station in Long Beach holding a sign in protest of BP. Shortly after Howard began her protest, Johnson and Peterson arrived, apparently in response to a complaint from the gas station manager. Although Howard had a permit to protest, the officers asked her to end her demonstration. When she refused, Howard was handcuffed and arrested as her husband and young son watched.
Howard was charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey the order of an officer. She was transported to the Harrison County Detention Center. Her bond was set at $665 but her family couldn't afford to pay it so she spent the night in jail. She had no previous arrests.
Howard said she had a right to protest BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, which led to the largest off shore oil spill in U.S. history.
“As the oil gushed out of the broken well into the beautiful Gulf waters, all I could think about was the devastation it was causing to my home and my community,” said Howard. “ I wanted to be sure that BP was held accountable for the damage. I wanted to show my son that we could make a difference. Instead he learned that it was not safe to exercise our most basic First Amendment rights. I am filing this lawsuit to make sure that no one else gets arrested for speaking out against injustice.”
ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Nsombi Lambright said Howard's arrest shows the need for law officers to be trained on what constitutes disorderly conduct and on the elements of constitutionally-protected demonstrations.
"Our First Amendment rights are fundamental to our democracy," said Lambright. "It is our hope that this lawsuit will push Mississippi municipalities to engage in a serious review of their policies and practices as they relate to a citizen's right to engage in peaceful protest."
Howard's case was remanded to the file on appeal due to lack of evidence.
Bear Atwood, ACLU of Mississippi legal director, said the officers had no cause to arrest Howard.
"She didn't violate any city ordinances. She didn't trespass on BP property. She didn't obstruct traffic on the public sidewalk," Atwood said. "She was improperly detained by the officers and arrested without probable cause."
The suit seeks an injunction restraining officers from interfering with a citizen's right to peacefully protest in exercise of First Amendment rights. The suit also seeks compensatory and punitive damages and expungement of Howard's records.
November 11, 2011
By Nsombi Lambright, ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director
Tuesday was a very emotional day for me. I began my work that day by voting. I always measure voter turnout (and potential problems) by what's happening at my own polling place. That went smoothly. I then went to campaign headquarters to find out what neighborhoods needed canvassing in order to make sure that people were "getting out to vote." Rabbi Debra Kassoff and I spent most of the day canvassing the communities surrounding Brinkley Middle School and Johnson Elementary School in northwest Jackson. These neighborhoods are joined by Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. While canvassing these neighborhoods, we saw many things. We witnessed poverty and government neglect, but we also witnessed family and community connectivity. We saw generations of families living under one roof. Grandma, daughter and granddaughter were all going to vote at the first home that we visited. Unfortunately, granddaughter never received her voter registration card although she'd registered multiple times at the WIC office. We talked to many grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, mothers and fathers who assured us that the family had voted against Initiatives 26 and 27 that day. We also had the opportunity to speak to young brothers who didn't understand what the initiatives were about. Working directly in communities still brings me as much joy today as it did almost 20 years ago when I started organizing. It centers me and reminds me what this work is all about. The folks that I work with always remind me of my family and they remind me that even though I have a job that pays me to do this work, I am not disconnected from the communities that we serve. These are my people, whether I run into them at a meeting, a family reunion, church or the grocery store. I am privileged to do this work and will keep fighting!! Little Sister, I'll be back to make sure that you get your registration card this time!
November 11, 2011
The time that you have been waiting for is here! The first MS Youth Hip Hop Summit Quarterly Youth Leadership Meeting is set for Saturday, Nov. 12, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the STEPS Coalition Building – DeMiller Hall (formerly the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer), 610 Water St. - Biloxi, MS. Join the broad-based coalition of social justice organizations as Mississippi's youth continue to learn how to work for change. We will continue what we started in Jackson this summer as we build skills to be effective youth justice activists. The time is now to make your voices heard and push for real changes in your communities! The ACLU of MS, NAACP MS State Conference, Children's Defense Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Coalition for Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse are continuing their collaboration to move this project forward.
The Quarterly Youth Leadership Meetings will continue the MS Youth Justice Movement we started in Jackson this July and push it forward to even greater heights! The state is divided into five regions, with the coastal area and surrounding towns/cities (Hattiesburg/Forrest County south) being the Southern Region. The day's activities will consist of excellent, rewarding, and fun workshops and activities designed to make you an effective activist.
The interactive workshops include:
- Effective communications, outreach, and student assembly.
- Know your rights: How to handle harassment from those in authority: police, teachers, administrators, etc.
- Creating the first edition of the MS Youth Hip Hop Zone.
- Art (music, visual, dance )
- MS Student Bill of Rights drafting (see attached draft from the summit)
- Action: Taking it to the streets!
*AND MUCH MORE!
Lunch and refreshments will be provided free of charge.
Even if you didn't attend the 2011 MS Youth Hip Hop Summit in Jackson, you can still be part of the Quarterly Leadership Meeting.
We want you to join in the fight of making your schools, homes,and communities better places! YOUR voice is critical in making the rightchange MS needs; we CANNOT do it without YOU!
We look forward to seeing YOU again or for the first time on Sat., Nov. 12 in Biloxi! Please contact us with any questions and/or concerns. We can’twait to see YOU in Biloxi!
PLEASE - RSVP to the MS Hip Hop Summit Facebook events page: \\Quarterly Youth Leadership Meeting (facebook.com/MS.hiphopsummit)
September 20, 2011
The ACLU of Mississippi and the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance sponsored a Know Your Rights training in DeSoto County on Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. at M.R. Dye Public Library, 2885 Goodman Road. Dozens of students and parents were shown how to be their own advocate in school and communities. All students -- regardless of race, nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation or religious beliefs -- are entitled to all rights under the U.S. Constitution.