Category: Mississippi

DOJ: Sexual misconduct at Walnut Grove youth facility among worst in nation

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

After reports emerged of physical and sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, and extended isolation of youth at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) in Mississippi, the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against GEO Group, the private prison corporation that operates the facility.

Last month, a settlement reached in the WGYCF case required the state of Mississippi to remove all youth from WGYCF and move them to another facility.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its report on the Walnut Grove investigation.  According to a DOJ press release:

“The United States conducted an in-depth investigation, including an on-site inspection of WGYCF, accompanied by expert consultants in the areas of corrections, medical care and mental health care.  Evidence reveals systematic, egregious and dangerous practices at WGYCF exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.  The Justice Department found reasonable cause to believe that a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct exists in several areas, including:

  • Deliberate indifference to staff sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with youth;
  • Use of excessive use of force by WGYCF staff on youth;
  • Inadequate protection of youth from youth-on-youth violence;
  • Deliberate indifference to youth at risk of self-injurious and suicidal behaviors; and
  • Deliberate indifference to the medical needs of youth.”

The DOJ found that sexual misconduct at WGYCF was “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” (more…)

Victory for Walnut Grove

According to a federal consent decree, the state of Mississippi will no longer house juveniles at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. The juvenile facility, located in Walnut Grove, MS, is run by GEO Group, the second largest private prison corporation in the U.S.

In November 201o, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against GEO Group when reports emerged of sexual abuse, improper medical care, extended prisoner isolation, and violence among inmates at Walnut Grove. According to the ACLU press release, youth at the facility were “forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and [were] subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff.”

The consent decree requires the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) to remove all youth under the age of 17 from the privately-run Walnut Grove facility and house them in a publicly-operated facility instead. The state is required to provide rehabilitative services for the youth and implement measures to protect them from sexual and physical abuse. Under this decree, the state of Mississippi is also prohibited from placing any youth in solitary confinement. MWN

Ground-Breaking Federal Consent Decree Will Prohibit Solitary Confinement of Youth Convicted as Adults, and Bar Their Incarceration in Violence-Ridden, For-Profit Prison Run by GEO Group

By KAREN WILSON

Children under the supervision of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) will no longer be housed in a privately run prison or subjected to brutal solitary confinement under the terms of a groundbreaking settlement of a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit charged that conditions at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which houses youth convicted as adults, are unconstitutional. The facility is operated by GEO Group Inc., the nation’s second largest private prison corporation.

“This represents a sea change in the way the MDOC will treat children in its custody,” said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “As a result of this litigation, Mississippi’s children will no longer languish in an abusive, privately operated prison that profits each time a young man is tried as an adult and ends up behind bars.” (more…)

Fannie Lou, Curtis and Montgomery County Justice

Confederate memorial, Winona, Mississippi

(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

By Alan Bean

I had always assumed that the confederate memorial in Winona, Mississippi had been destroyed in 1978 along with the courthouse.  It seemed a bit counter-intuitive, but there was no sign of Civil War nostalgia on the grounds of the new courthouse where Curtis Flowers was convicted of murder in the summer of 2010.

Curtis has been tried for the murder of four people in a Winona furniture store in July, 1996.  He has been convicted four times.  Two trials ended in hung juries.  Three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which is currently reviewing his most recent conviction.

Meanwhile, Curtis sits on Parchman prison’s death row.

Friends of Justice is convinced that Curtis Flowers is innocent, but you would be hard pressed to find a white resident of Winona, Mississippi who agrees with us.  At Flower’s 2010 trial, it became apparent, perhaps for the first time, that District Attorney Doug Evans and his investigator, John Johnson, had decided Curtis Flowers was the killer less than three hours after the murder scene was discovered.  The only evidence connecting Curtis with the crime at that time was a check for three days wages found on the desk of the slain Bertha Tardy.  The check was made out to Curtis Flowers.  Though this hardly constituted evidence of wrongdoing, Evans and Johnson centered their investigation on Flowers from the beginning; no other suspects or alternative theories of the crime were ever considered.

The former site of the Montgomery County Jail in Winona, Mississippi

Melanie Wilmoth and I were in Winona this Monday to visit with Archie and Lola Flowers, Curtis’s parents.  We were driving home from a local restaurant when I asked about the location of the old county jail and courthouse.

In June of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Sue Johnson and Lawrence Guyot were savagely beaten by several local police officers and a state trooper at the county jail.  A few days later, they were arraigned at the county courthouse.  Their crime: demanding to be served in the white-only restaurant of Winona’s segregated bus depot two years after the federal government integrated bus depots, train stations and airports across the South.

Archie Flowers didn’t answer my question about the old courthouse, he just guided the car in the direction of downtown Winona.  “The courthouse used to be right here,” Lola told me, pointing to the Montgomery County library.

There it stood, the conferate memorial that graces virtually every courthouse in the old South.  This one had been erected in 1909, just 44 years after they drove old Dixie down.   Southern pride still burned strong.  The monument was dedicated “To the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and the soldiers who fought for state rights.”

Even in 1909, southerners embraced the historical fiction that the War of Northern Aggression had nothing to do with the South’s “peculiar institution.”

MLK display in the Winona libraryThe next morning, Melanie and I returned to the library.  A Civil Rights display featuring pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us as we entered the room.  I was impressed.  Mississippi is one of three southern states where citizens can choose to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat.  A Civil Rights display was above and beyond the call of civic duty.

I moved to the desk and asked if the library had any information about the old courthouse and county jail.  “I’m not sure,” the librarian told me.  “If we have anything it will be in the book we’ve got on Montgomery County history.”

She plucked an imposing tome from the library shelves.  It was one of those local histories that most rural counties produce every half century or so.  This one had been published in 1994, three decades after Fannie Lou Hamer and friends were savagely beaten at the county jail and three years before Curtis Flowers went on trial the first time.

Like most county histories, the book began with a section on local history.  Although there was an extensive section on the Native American people who occupied the county before the arrival of white settlers, there was no discussion of slavery.

The book featured articles on every white family with roots in the county and several hundred pictures, but although Montgomery County is 45% African-American, not a single black face appeared anywhere.  Melanie and I weren’t the first readers to notice this.  One reader had scrawled his disgust on the table of contents page.  “Sorry people,” the message read, “us black folks are not listed in family histories.  Apparently we don’t exist though the copyright is 1994.  Go figure racist white folks.  Go Obama!”

The book’s extensive section on the Civil War merely reproduced documents from the war era with not even a passing reference to slavery.  The war was all about Abraham Lincoln’s desire to “destroy all the institutions of the South and withdraw from her people the constitutional guarantees for the protection to property and the right to enjoy the same.”

A visitor to Montgomery County would have no idea that black people had ever lived there or that slavery and Jim Crow segregation were integral to the county’s legacy.  No wonder the note writer was confused and angry.

But that was 1994 and this is 2012.  I doubt you would have seen a civil rights display in the Winona library back when Curtis Flowers was first arrested in 1997.

At first blush, historical myopia and denial have little relevance to the fairness of the Montgomery County criminal justice system.   Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, June Johnson and the other civil rights leaders arrested at Winona’s bus depot in 1963 weren’t simply denied justice; their captives took sadistic pleasure in their ability to beat and sexually humiliate the men and women in their control.  Thanks to pressure from the Kennedy White House, the officers were tried in federal court, but an all white, all-male jury acquitted them after deliberating for a matter of minutes.  The law of the land did not apply to black people (especially black civil rights activists) in 1963.

How much had changed when Curtis Flowers went to trial for the first time 34 years later?

A lot.  When Doug Evans illegally kept black residents off the jury, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict.  When, at a subsequent trial, five black jurors were selected, all five voted to acquit Mr. Flowers while all seven white voted to acquit.

These facts suggest radical change mixed with a disturbing degree of historical continuity.  Things have changed for the better; but not nearly enough.  That is why the case of Curtis Flowers and hundreds of other Mississippi defendants must be viewed through the lens of the Magnolia State’s troubled racial history.  Did Curtis Flowers get a fair trial in 1997, in 2010, or at any time in between?  You be the judge.

Haley Barbour’s selective compassion condemned in Mississippi

Haley Barbour has put his foot in it again; this time for pardoning more than 200 Mississippi inmates as one of his final acts as governor.  Please understand that most of these people had served their sentences; Barbour issued full pardons so they could vote, buy fishing licenses and live a normal life in the free world.  As Michelle Alexander argues with chilling clarity in her book The New Jim Crow, ex-cons don’t return to the free world when they leave prison, they are condemned to restricted and truncated lives in which the pursuit of an education or a decent job is largely a waste of time.  In short, they have been excommunicated from the American dream.  Governor Barbour felt that a few former inmates, selected with capricious randomness, deserve better.

It should also be noted that this is not the first time Haley Barbour has shown his compassionate side.  Until 2008, the Mississippi Governor refused to pardon anyone for any reason, then, as Radley Balko discovered when he checked the records two years ago, Barbour suddenly went soft.  The five men pardoned on Barbour’s way out the door are remarkably similar to the kind of people Barbour has pardoned in recent years.  Here’s Balko’s list from late 2009:

Bobby Hays Clark, who in 1996 shot his ex-girlfriend in the neck and beat her boyfriend with a broom handle. Clark, who had a previous aggravated assault conviction, was sentenced to 38 years. Barbour pardoned him last year without notifying the family of Clark’s victim.

Michael David Graham, who in 1989 shot his ex-wife point-blank with a shotgun while she waited at a traffic light. Barbour suspended Graham’s life sentence, and he was released.

Clarence Jones, who stabbed his ex-girlfriend 22 times in 1992. She had previously filed multiple assault and trespassing charges against him. He was sentenced to life in prison. Barbour pardoned him last year.

Paul Joseph Warnock, who in 1989 shot his girlfriend in the back of the head as she slept. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1993. Barbour pardoned him last year.

William James Kimble, convicted and sentenced to life for robbing and murdering an elderly man in 1991. (more…)

Fetal personhood and civil rights

William Wilberforce as portrayed in "Amazing Grace"

By Alan Bean

Personhood USA, the group arguing that personhood begins the moment of conception, is promoting itself as a latter day embodiment of the civil rights movement.  Days after a “fetal personhood” amendment was rejected by 60% of Mississippi voters, Personhood Florida’s Bryan Longworth is undaunted.  William Wilberforce didn’t end slavery in England the first time he tried, Longworth says, and his group isn’t about to give up simply because voters in the most conservative state in America aren’t buying the fetal personhood argument.

The reference to Wilberforce caught my attention.  Nancy and I saw Amazing Grace in an Amarillo movie theatre in 2007.  We were weighing our options at the time.  Did we really want to stay in the criminal justice reform fight?  Sure, we had won some important victories, but when you live in the Texas Panhandle you have few illusions.  Every struggling rural community of any size is sustained by a state prison and there appears to be zero support for ending mass incarceration.  When you have repeatedly slammed your head into a brick wall you sometimes think how nice it would feel to stop. (more…)

A whirlwind tour: Reflections on the Mississippi Delta


Mississippi Delta

By Melanie Wilmoth

It has been a few weeks since Alan Bean and I returned from our whirlwind trip to Mississippi. Since we arrived back in Texas, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the trip and all of our various adventures and encounters while we were there.

We planned the trip to Mississippi for several reasons. We are currently working on a few cases in the Delta and had some research to conduct. We also arranged to meet with other advocacy organizations doing similar work in Mississippi so that we could build relationships and collaborate with them on future endeavors. In addition, we planned to meet up for a civil rights tour with a professor and several students from the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. With all of this on our agenda, our days were filled to the brim. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted and exponentially more enlightened as the trip came to an end.

When we arrived in Jackson, MS, we were welcomed by the wonderful staff of the John M. Perkins Foundation where we stayed that night. The next morning, we met with the Foundation’s Special Projects Coordinator and learned more about the Foundation’s history and its goal of bringing racial reconciliation to Mississippi. From there, we touched base with the Program Director for the ACLU of Mississippi. She informed us of the current ALCU initiatives around immigration, youth justice, and the school-to-prison pipeline and we shared with her about the work of Friends of Justice, discussing opportunities for future dialogue and collaboration.

After two successful meetings with advocacy organizations in Jackson, we made our way to Cleveland, MS. There, we met with Professor Paul Ortiz and several University of Florida history students. Dr. Ortiz and the students were incredibly friendly and interested in the work of Friends of Justice. After meeting them, I was even more excited about joining them on the civil rights tour. (more…)

Hate-crime victim’s family opposes death penalty

By Melanie Wilmoth

The family of James Craig Anderson, a Black man from Mississippi who was the victim of a hate crime this summer, is requesting that prosecutors do not seek the death penalty for those responsible for James’ murder.

As CNN reports, a letter Mr. Anderson’s family sent to Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith reads:

“We ask that you not seek the death penalty for anyone involved in James’ murder. Our opposition to the death penalty is deeply rooted in our religious faith, a faith that was central in James’ life as well. We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James’ killers will not help to balance the scales, but sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment. Those responsible for James’ death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man, they also caused our family unspeakable pain and grief, but our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another.”

In response, DA Smith stated, “It’s most likely that we will honor the family’s wishes, but we will see whether or not things will change over the course of this proceeding.”

Family of alleged hate-killing victim opposes death penalty in case

By Drew Griffin and Scott Bronstein

Jackson, Mississippi (CNN) — The family of an African-American man who died after allegedly being beaten by a group of white teens and run over by a truck is asking state and federal officials not to seek the death penalty in the case.

Relatives of James Craig Anderson, who died shortly after receiving his injuries on June 26, sent a letter with their request to the prosecutor in the case, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith. (more…)

All Eyes on Jackson, Mississippi

 By Alan Bean

The convergence of three events is directing a lot of attention to the Magnolia State: “The Help” is #1 at the box office, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is being unveiled on the Mall in Washington, and a televised hate crime has rekindled memories of the state’s brutal past.

A spate of connect-the-dots articles appeared over the weekend, and this lengthy piece in the Los Angeles Times is probably the best of the batch.  How much has Jackson, Mississippi changed since the civil rights era?  A whole lot, and not enough. (more…)

A hate crime unites Jackson Mississippi

By Alan Bean

While The Help transported America back to Jackson, MS circa 1963,  a young white Jackson man named Daryl Dedmon was determined to prove that nothing has changed in Jackson.

It could be argued, in fact, that Dedmon’s decision to run over a man he and his friends had already beaten to a bloody pulp was far more senseless than hate crimes perpetrated against black Mississippians during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras.  Violence back then had a clear purpose: maintaining Jim Crow and white supremacy.  Perpetrators weren’t necessarily seething with hatred, they were simply making a point (the lives of black people are worthless) and inspiring an emotion (terror).  That was the message whenever hapless black men were lynched by smiling crowds throughout the South.

What kind of message were Mr. Dedmon and his friends sending?  The only silver lining clinging to the edges of this story is the response of Jackson residents, black and white.  Dedmon et al didn’t mean to unite their community, but that’s what they did.

Normally, I wouldn’t assume the guilt of the defendants, but these guys were caught by a surveillance camera.

James Craig Anderson

HUNDREDS MARCH AGAINST RACIST KILLING IN MISSISSIPPI

Vigil for James Craig Anderson is held in Jackson parking lot where White teens are suspected of intentionally targeting Black victim for brutal attack caught on videotape

Religious and community leaders in Jackson, Miss. led a march and vigil on Sunday for James Craig Anderson, the Black man who authorities say was killed in June by a White teenager who shouted racial slurs after running the 49-year-old over with his car on June 26.

 The Clarion-Ledger reported that a diverse crowd gathered at the Metro Inn to remember Anderson, as Daryl Dedmon remains jailed on a murder charge under an$800,000 bond.

Escorted by police and singing “We Shall Overcome,” marchers walked down Ellis Avenue to the site of the hit-and-run killing, as faith leaders decried a killing that shocked a community and has drawn international headlines. When they arrived, a wreath and candles were laid down as demonstrators joined hands in solidarity. (more…)

The Help: as good as Hollywood gets on race

By Alan Bean

I wanted to like The Help, Hollywood’s adaptation Kathryn Stockett’s popular  novel.

Having read the reviews, I was pretty sure what I was getting myself into.  I did like the movie–as a movie.  Given the limitations of Hollywood storytelling, The Help was an enjoyable slice of popular entertainment.

Reviewers often refer to the movie as a “surprise success;” which is odd when you consider that the book was a big hit, especially with women, and the movie appears to be a faithful adaptation.  The middle-aged black woman standing in line next to us assured us that the movie got it right–she was seeing the film for the second time.

The Help is a chick flick.  There are few male characters (none of any consequence) and the audience was at least two-thirds women, most of them middle-aged or older.  The movie reminded me of Fried Green Tomatoes, a film about women in the South that centers on a particularly shocking image that is funny because it is shocking (humor is rooted in surprise).  I won’t spoil the story by telling you about the shocking image in The Help, but it definitely made the story go. (more…)