By Alan Bean
Walnut Grove, MS is pleased to be located next to a private juvenile prison. The facility provides the tiny community with much-needed employment and a solid revenue stream. Although the population of Walnut Grove, located northeast of Jackson, is only 1,737, that represents a 255.9% increase from the 488 residents recorded by the 2000 census. 1200 of the new resident are juvenile inmates prosecuted as adults on felony charges. The rest, one assumes, moved to the Mississippi town shortly after the private juvenile prison opened its doors. No wonder the locals are happy.
The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center beg to differ. Five months ago, a feature story on NPR’s All Things Considered highlighted what goes on behind locked doors in Walnut Grove. In November of 2010, the two groups (represented by Jackson civil rights attorney Rob McDuff) filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Walnut Grove facility on behalf of all the young men incarcerated at the prison.
According to the ACLU press release, the suit alleged “that the children there are forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff.”
The Department of Justice is conducting its own investigation. Meanwhile, the ACLU-SPLC case is still pending in U.S. District Court in Jackson.
A companion piece to the NPR story provided some interesting (and troubling) background information about the Florida-based Geo Group. “GEO has had a rocky reputation in the youth prison business,” the story said. “In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission canceled a contract with GEO to manage the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center after auditors conducted an unannounced visit and found rampant mismanagement.”
Now, as the Yuma Sun story below makes clear, Geo’s ugly reputation has damaged her corporate bottom line once again. “We are making good progress with settlement negotiations with the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project told a reporter with the Yuma Sun, “But the very terrible conditions (there) still exist. GEO has done nothing significant yet to remedy them.”
For-profit prisons have supported every piece of tough-on-crime to come down the legislative pike. Why not? Feeding America’s punitive consensus is great for business. (For more on the case against private prisons, read Joe Atkins recent piece for the Institute of Southern Studies.)
Michael Mcintosh, the father of a youth involved in the lawsuit and a founder of Friends and Family of Youth Incarcerated at Walnut Grove, a coalition of individuals who advocate for WGYCF youth, makes the case bluntly: “Our children’s lives shouldn’t be at risk because corporations cut corners in order to increase their profits. This abuse must end immediately and the youth at Walnut Grove should be moved to juvenile justice facilities that can provide for their care.”
Two private prison companies — GEO Group and Management and Training Corp. — involved in proposals for a prison expansion in San Luis, Ariz., are embroiled in legal battles.
GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the country, is currently a defendant in a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union for violations at its juvenile detention center in Walnut Grove, Miss.
The lawsuit contends the prison’s management caused a culture of violence and exploitation by selling drugs inside the facility and entering into sexual relationships with the inmates.
According to the ACLU, inmates were beaten by staff members while handcuffed and defenseless or sprayed with chemicals while locked in their cells. Others were subjected to multiple stabbings and beatings, leaving one prisoner with permanent brain damage.
The case is still pending in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Miss.
“We are making good progress with settlement negotiations with the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “But the very terrible conditions (there) still exist. GEO has done nothing significant yet to remedy them.”
In addition to the juvenile center, the ACLU is also monitoring another GEO managed site, the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, the only mental health prison in that state.
“We have found really atrocious conditions at EMCF,” Winter said. “(We found) really shocking deprivations of basic treatment for the mentally ill.”
Prisoners at the facility allegedly are subjected to extreme caloric restrictions, physical abuse and extensive lockdowns.
“We had a medical expert document that it was not uncommon for a person to lose between 20 and 50 pounds in the course of several months because the food is so inadequate,” Winter said. “We have seen in some cases prisoners physically abused for behaviors that are clearly triggered by untreated, serious mental illness.”
Winter said they are working closely with state officials to develop a corrective action plan to remedy the conditions at the prison.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into some of the violations at the Walnut Grove facility. The DOJ declined to comment on the case.
Management and Training Corp., the third-largest private prison company in the country, operates the Kingman prison where three violent offenders escaped last July.
Two of the three inmates who escaped, John McCluskey and Tracy Province, are charged in New Mexico with killing Gary and Linda Haas, an Oklahoma couple, while the inmates were on the run, according to an Associated Press article.
A security review of the prison concluded there were multiple violations at the site.
The review mentioned a malfunctioning perimeter alarm system, guards not patrolling the fence, burned-out bulbs on a control panel showing the status of the fence, and a door to a dormitory that should have been locked was propped open with a rock, facilitating the inmates’ escape, according to a previous Yuma Sun article.
Relatives of the Haases filed a wrongful death suit against MTC in March 2011. The case is still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Arizona Department of Corrections revised and reissued its request for proposals in January after a review prompted by the Kingman escape.
“Part of the bid proposal was to include issues from the past,” said Barret Marson, DOC spokesman. “That information is weighed in our decision and is part of the evaluation.”
The new request includes detailed provisions on security, including ones requiring both random and scheduled perimeter checks of prisons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Darren DaRonco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-685 .
A public hearing on the proposed prison expansion will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the City Council Chambers in San Luis.
“It will be an open hearing,” said Barret Marson, Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman. “The two companies will give their presentations, and then members of the audience can submit requests to speak and ask questions.”
In July, DOC announced that GEO Group and Management and Training Corp. were among the four finalists to receive the 2,000- to 3,000-bed project. The hearing will focus on the specifics of each proposal.