In the summer of 2004, I was invited to Mississippi by members of the "Mississippi Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Coalition" to document the testimony of young people and their parents, who'd been caught up in the state's juvenile justice system and the Mississippi training schools. The goal was to prepare a short video that could be presented as testimony in a public hearing, to be held at the state capitol around the conditions and claims of abuse at the training schools. In the midst of this process, we also captured a number of perspectives as to how and why these training schools exist, contextualizing them within history, politics and the culture of the region.
The claims of abuse lodged at the training schools had been well documented, wherein one judge had referred to them as the worst youth prisons he'd ever seen. The abuses include violence against the youth, sexual abuse, verbal and mental abuse, inhumane conditions of confinement (including solitary confinement, a violation of international law when applied to children), supervision that incapable of stopping and often condoning rampant violence among the youth, including fights and sexual violence, and institutionalized racism.
At the hearings, the video we produced had quite an effect, politically. The opposing view at the hearings had been that of the state's Department of Human Services (DHS), who run the training schools, with the interest of defending their programs, their funding, and individually, their jobs and their own political futures.
The state strategy at such hearings, here as well as in other situations I've documented previously, is to "preempt" the hearings with (1) some kind of official report and set of anecdotes that stress how well the programs are running, or how abuses have been curbed, and (2) garner "friends" in the local paper or media to write a favorable article, which usually means turning the department's own materials—reports, press releases and so on—into "news."
Once at the hearing, their strategy is to present this "news" as evidence of bettered conditions and declining abuse, while countering community testimony by degrading the character of those who testify, both directly and indirectly ("...look at the trouble they're children have gotten into, are you going to trust THEM over US?"). A high point of the DHS' boasting was their recounting of a story which had been published in the previous day's complimentary newspaper article (meaning DHS had "fed" the story to its writers), about one young man who'd "graduated" from the training school and had saved someone's life by using CPR, which, coincidentally, he'd learned at the training school.
values (disguising race & class prejudice)
Additionally, a number of the state representatives who testified diverted the attention to systemic problems by concentrating on behavior, values and "morality," including statistical information on the sexuality and promiscuity youth at the training school, which indirectly attributed the discussed to a lack of "values" among the communities (99% of which are black and/or economically poor). This of course reminds one of the time tested strategy to justify the criminalization of populations by blaming their "criminality" on their individual choices, their community's immorality or "pathology" (refer to Chicago-school sociological explanations U.S. racism as the result of cultural pathologies among black people, rather than the society's own structures and compositional choices, theorized after arguments for the biological inferiority of black people were de-bunked mid-twentieth century). It may also remind us of the notion of "values," used historically to counter the role of systemic realities—such as poverty and social inequality—in social problems, by insisting that "values" are the core which hold together a culture. More specifically in the U.S. South, the "threat to values" has long been used to attack its progressive movements, from the abolition of slavery to the ending of legal segregation, both justified so as to protect the "values" of the culture, also revealing the racialized notion of black people and people of color as being less "moral," less "advanced," less "cultured," or even less "human."
In the midst of all this at the hearings, we showed the video following the emotional testimony of a group of families whose children had been abused at the training schools. Through the number of young people we'd interviewed, and each of their own detailings of the same abuses in the same way, and the same conditions there, the consensus within the hearing chambers afterwards was clearly in favor of the community groups. While DHS had been trying to impune the credibility of the families, the video helped reverse that, and instead, undermined the credibility of the Department. Of course, the majority of citizens in the chambers already seemed in agreement about this, but politically, what this accomplished was positioning the legislators who were presiding, sitting before the media and the "public," as having to "respond" to the problem, rather than write them off as the ravings of various "malcontents" and "subversives."
The following day, when I'd gotten clearance to shoot one of the prisons (largely because DHS now had to seem cooperative), I was driven down to the facility by two department representatives, who just happened to have a conversation about how "degenerate" all the parents and young people who'd testified were, including various "facts" about one of the young men who I had previously interviewed, and from that knew to be false. It was quite extraordinary to be sitting in the back of this lush, Lincoln Navigator, and not be invited into a conversation which was so clearly intended to me to overhear. Throughout my tour of the "campus," I was treated to a number of such rehearsed conversations, singing the praises of the education they provide the young people and how well they deliver them back to their communities.
The question now, after these hearings, is to what extent the communities—who clearly forced these hearings with the assistance of legal teams—will be allowed input and influence over what reforms take place. The legislators may have been positioned so as to have to respond, but that doesn't make clear what the character of such a response will be. The communities want the training schools shut down altogether, with the millions of dollars spent on the training schools funneled back into their own communities, to pay for local, intimate rehabilitative services and counseling for young people, as well as for the communities' crumbling public schools. But in all likelihood, the DHS and the officials, and their friends throughout the capitol, will not let the training schools shut down, or allow that funding diverted away from their own coffers. The governor, Haley Barbour, is pushing to "privatize" the training schools, which would mean using this crisis as an opportunity to say, "if we hand them over to a corporation the wonders of corporate style efficiency and economic rationalism will solve all of our many problems...", wherein business cronies of the governor, who help mark a nice long trail all the way to the Bush White House, will get to profit solely from the millions in tax dollars that go into the system.
[click here to watch the original hearing video]