This is from the series in MotherJones Magazine
“A picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”
—By James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
May. 13, 2013
Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We’ve compiled this subjective list of America’s 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with criminal-justice reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.
We will roll out the final contenders this week, complete with photos and video. Number 9 is a corporate-run facility where children allegedly have been subjected to a heartrending pattern of brutal beatings, rapes, and isolation.
Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Leake County, Mississippi)
Number of prisoners: Capacity 1,450 (actual population in flux)
Who’s in charge: (current) Lawrence Mack, warden; (former) George Zoley, CEO, the GEO Group; Christopher B. Epps, commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections
The basics: Efforts are underway to clean up and clear out Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which one federal judge called “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts” visited upon children as young as 13. For years, the kids at Walnut Grove were subjected to a gauntlet of physical and sexual assaults, and psychological abuse including long-term solitary confinement. All of this took place under the management of private prison conglomerate the GEO Group.
The backlash: Evidence gathered for a report by the Justice Department and a lawsuit by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote in a 2012 court order. The court found that conditions at Walnut Grove violated the Constitution, not to mention state and federal civil and criminal laws. Guards regularly had sex with their young charges and the facility’s pattern of “brutal” rapes among prisoners was the worst of “any facility anywhere in the nation” (court’s emphasis). Guards also were deemed excessively violent—beating, kicking, and punching “handcuffed and defenseless” youths and frequently subjecting them to chemical restraints such as pepper spray, even for insignificant infractions.
The guards also sold drugs on site and staged “gladiator-style” fights. “It’d be like setting up a fight deal like you would with two dogs,” one former resident told NPR. “They actually bet on it. It was payday for the guards.” Said another: “A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.” Kids who complained or tried to report these incidents faced harsh retribution, including long stints in solitary.
Judge Reeves wrote that the state had turned a blind eye to the prison company’s abuses: Walnut Grove’s charges, “some of whom are mere children, are at risk every minute, every hour, every day.” In accord with a court decree, the facility’s youngest residents have been moved to a state-run juvenile facility, and Mississippi canceled its contract with GEO—which still runs some 65 prisons nationwide. The contract was handed over to another private prison company, Management and Training Corporation, which also has been a target of criticism for advocates of criminal justice reform.
Also read: “The Lost Boys,” about what happens when you put kids in an adult isolation facility.
Watch: Local news report on a protest by Walnut Grove parents.
From: New York Times
CHANGED ATTITUDES Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of
corrections, said he used to believe that difficult inmates should be locked
down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible. “That was the culture,
and I was part of it,” he said.
By ERICA GOODE
Published: March 10, 2012
PARCHMAN, Miss. — The heat was suffocating, and the inmates locked alone in
cells in Unit 32, the state’s super-maximum-security prison, wiped away
sweat as they lay on concrete slab beds.
Josh Anderson for The New York Times
One of the 12-foot-by-7 ½-foot solitary cells in Unit 32 of the Mississippi
Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only
in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more
so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and
the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge
had already ruled unacceptable.
So it was not really surprising when violence erupted in 2007: an inmate
stabbed to death with a homemade spear that May; in June, a suicide; in July
another stabbing; in August, a prisoner killed by a member of a rival gang.
What was surprising was what happened next. Instead of tightening
restrictions further, prison officials loosened them.
They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built
a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs
in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.
In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The
number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000.
So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that
Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.
The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a
growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation
and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should
be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio
and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of
prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday,
officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could
result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three
The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades
ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with
prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the
“get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger
numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special
prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types
At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal
justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States
Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades.
More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other
democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.
Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has
devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift
is economics. Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build
and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as
conventional prisons are. They are an expense that many recession-plagued
states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last
month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.
Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that
isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall
prison violence. Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will
eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies
Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he
found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union
lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as
“hell, an insane asylum.”
Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be
locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.
“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.
By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes
“If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,”
he now says.
A Very Costly Experiment
James F. Austin held up the file of an inmate in Unit 32 and posed a
question to the staff members gathered in a conference room at the
Mississippi Department of Corrections headquarters in Jackson.
“O.K., does this guy really need to be there?” he asked.
It was June 2007, and the department was under pressure to make
court-ordered improvements to conditions at Unit 32, where violence was
brewing. Dr. Austin, a prison consultant, had been called in by the state.
As the discussion proceeded, the staff members were startled to discover
that many inmates in Unit 32 had been sent there not because they were
highly dangerous, but because they were a nuisance — they had disobeyed
orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level
gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 18, 2012
An article last Sunday about states that are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement misidentified the office held by Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, in the American Correctional Association. He is president-elect, not president. (Daron Hall is the current president; Mr. Epps takes over in 2013.)
I found this article fascinating, albeit troubling as well. You really can’t take the American Correctional Association seriously as an accrediting agency now, seeing him at the helm after getting a great score. They don’t calculate prisoner mortality rates into their evaluations and equations, I guess. How can they have any accreditation at all? Don’t any of those ACA people have a clue about what was happening in Parchman? It ‘s as bad as what’s been going on in the prison Jamie and Gladys Scott have been buried in. Who do they think is responsible for all this if not him? Is the MDOC now the national gold standard for the ACA? That’s pathetic.
I wonder how many of those ACA people even care that this man was fired early in his career, back when he was a corrections officer, for violating the civil rights of an escapee as part of a group of MDOC staff who beat the guy senseless after apprehending him. That’s all according to court records easily enough located on the internet.
They got their jobs back after a fight (no big surprise) – and as we all know he went on to preside over one of the most brutal, negligent departments of corrections in the country. Under his watch, mortality rates among prisoners have skyrocketed to where Mississippi’s is the second highest in the nation. That has also occurred since Wexford took over the health care. I suspect it has something to do with whether or not they’re properly treating – or even bothering to prevent or screen for – illnesses like Hep C, Diabetes, and heart disease and their secondary complications.
I hope a team of investigative journalists or some top notch college students out there in Mississippi pick up on this and run with it – look at all those deaths and try to find out what caused them. Were they from chronic or acute illnesses? Were people getting adequate care or were their pleas for medical attention going unanswered? What’s the mortality rate in the prisons among dialysis patients? Is there a high incidence of Hep C infection among them (much non-IV drug transmission occurs through poorly maintained medical equipment, like dialysis machines. Do you think Wexford would even tell a patient if they ever got infected through dialysis? Do you think the MDOC would?)
What’s the prevalence of diabetes and complicating factors, like kidney disease, among Mississippi prisoners? How about among African American prisoners? I bet you’ll find that a lot of people are dying from illnesses like diabetes related to “lifestyle” (including things the prisons have total control over, like diet) or from secondary complications of disease processes that could have been manged – as in Jamie Scott’s case. I bet it’s pretty high among minority women in prison in particular. I think it’s pretty fair to say that prison life had a lot to do with her developing diabetes and severe kidney disease this early in life.
I have good reason for asking those questions. I was going to embed links that led to some of the answers, but I’ve already covered a lot of that ground – someone else needs to move this from blog to paper. Someone from Mississippi. There’s a whole prison full of women wiling and ready to talk – probably the men are, too. All they need is someone willing to listen and then do something with it.
In the meantime, think on this, America. The man who runs the Mississippi Department of Corrections just became the president of the American Correctional Association, which is supposed to be accrediting all of our jails and prisons. Think any prisoners in Mississippi are going to see justice now? Think any prisoners in ANY state will get what they need in terms of medical care from the directors who now look to him for leadership?
What a reflection of cowardice and self-interest on the part of the membership of the American Correctional Association (dominated and kind of sponsored by the private prison industry, by the way) to put that guy out as their president. Why would they choose him? Certainly not because of his stellar ethical foundation. But I guess every single one of them is knowingly letting people die, too, trying to keep them from making too much noise in the process. That’s what happens here in Arizona. I haven’t heard one prisoner rights activist from any state in the country say that their DoC director is a decent human being who takes full responsibility for the treatment of prisoners in his (her) custody.
I sure hope the Scott Sisters keep making noise, bringing what’s happening there to the world’s attention. We’ll try to keep amplifying your voices – and those of any other prisoners and family members who write to us – as much as possible. We’ve haven’t been posting a lot, but believe me, we’re still out here for you. We haven’t been fooled a bit…
This is from the end of May . The article was in the MS Digital Daily, which I believe is the state of Mississippi’s PR “news” line, not to be confused with a real journalistic venture. If I’m wrong about this being anything other than a press release for the MDOC – or if I’ve erred about facts in my remarks above – then please correct me by leaving a comment at the end of this article, and we’ll look into it. We can execute Troy Davis even if he’s factually innocent, but god forbid we lambaste an abusive man in power.
|Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher B. Epps Elected American Correctional Association President|
|posted by Baxter Cannada | 5/25/2010|
By KENT CROCKER
Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher B. Epps has been elected as president of the prestigious American Correctional Association. Commissioner Epps will be the 102nd president of the organization. The first ACA president was Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes later became the nineteenth president of the United States.
The American Correctional Association (ACA), originally founded in 1870 as the National Prison Association, is an international organization of correctional administrators and professionals in various correctional disciplines. At the 1954 Congress of Correction in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the name of the American Prison Association was changed to the American Correctional Association. The organization is composed of more than 20,000 members from 60 countries. Approximately 450 Mississippians are members of the organization.
As ACA president, Commissioner Epps will head a major publishing operation. The ACA magazine Corrections Today is the leading correctional publication. It is accompanied by over 300 other ACA publications, training curricula and videos. The ACA is a primary source of training for correctional professionals. In recognition of the growing correctional health care profession, ACA also publishes Correctional Health Today.
Mississippi is a long term beneficiary of the ACA. Through the American Correctional Association accreditation program, under the leadership of Commissioner Epps, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has developed and or enhanced institutional programs, agency operating procedures and overall safety. This improvement is partially responsible for a decrease in recidivism from 34 percent 2003 in to the current 30 percent. Through the accreditation process, Mississippi became the 14th state to receive the ACA Eagle Award. The Eagle Award signifies that every aspect of a correctional agency that can be accredited has been accredited. Since Mississippi received the Eagle Award on August 11, 2008, one other state has received the award. Apart from the agency’s accreditation, several MDOC employees have become accredited through the ACA thus enhancing their value to the taxpayers of Mississippi.
Governor Barbour praised the Mississippi Department of Corrections, under the leadership of Commissioner Christopher Epps, for improvements in agency management and fiscal responsibility. Governor Barbour stated “It is a testimony to the leadership of the MDOC that the agency received full accreditation by an international association that Chris Epps later became president of, even while MDOC reduced its operating costs by more than $100 million during a 5-year period.”
(Interjection: I think this is the magic this man works, folks – cutting costs with lives.
It makes his boss real proud, too. -PA)
Commissioner Epps states, “The American Correctional Association has provided me with the professional network to understand the approaches that are working in the other states and various member nations. This has been a valuable component in Mississippi’s endeavor to improve quality while reducing expenditures.” He went on to express his heartfelt appreciation for Governor Barbour’s support, the support of James Gondles, and for the membership of the ACA as a whole. He said, “In my 28 years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections and my 8 years as Commissioner of Corrections, I have always known my fellow employees as a second family and have never questioned their support. Each and every one of them knows that this wasn’t just an election of Chris Epps: It was recognition of the Mississippi Department of Corrections as the best corrections agency in the U.S. and the best state agency in Mississippi. As proud as my other family is of me, I am doubly proud of them.”
Unconstitutional Living Condition ~ Unedited ~By Jamie Scott ~ Please Forward to Media Outlets
April 20, 2010
Jamie Scott # 19197
P.O. Box 88550
Pearl, MS 39288-8850
The living condition in quickbed area is not fit for any human to live in. I have been incarcerated for 15 years 6 months now and this is the worst I have ever experience. When it rain out side it rain inside. The zone flood like a river. The rain comes down on our heads and we have to try to get sheets and blankets to try to stop it from wetting our beds and personnel property. Because the floors are concrete and it have paint on it, it makes it very slippery when it rain and there have been numerous of inmates that have broke their arms and hurt there self do to this. Above our heads there are rows and rows of spiders as if we live in the jungle. There are inmates that have holds in there bodies left from spider bites, because once they are bitten it take forever to get to the clinic for any help. There are mold in the bathroom ceiling and around the walls and toilets. The toilets leak sewage from under them and they have the inmate men to come in and patch them up occasionally. The smell is awful. The showers are two circular poles with five shower heads on each pole. The floor in the shower is also concrete and slippery. There is nothing to hold on to when you exit the shower so there have been many inmates that have hurt there self in the process. Outside the building there is debirs where the unit is falling apart. Each day we are force to live in these conditions. The staph infection is so high and we are force to wave in toilet and sewage water when we have to go to the bathroom. I have witness to many inmates die at the hands of this second rate medical care. I do not want to be one of them. When this is brought to the health department or anyone attention. The MDOC tries to get the inmate to try to pamper it up so if someone comes in it want look as bad as the inmates said it did. I am fully aware that we are in prison, but no one should have to live in such harsh condition. I am paranoid of catching anything because of what I have been going throw with my medical condition. We are living in these harsh conditions, but if you go to the administration offices, they are nice and clean and smell nice because they make sure the inmates clean their offices each day. They tell us to clean the walls. Cleaning the walls will not help anything. Cleaning the walls will not stop the rain from pouring in. it will not stop the mold from growing inside the walls and around us. It will not stop the spiders from mating. They have 116 inmates on each wing, and we live not five feet from each other in order to pack us in. We have the blowers on the ceiling and if the inmates are acting crazy or the staff come in mad they use the blowers as a form of punishment. The taxes payers really are lead to believe we are been rehabilitated. That is a joke. All we do is sit in this infected unit and build up more hate. Rehabilitated starts within you. If you want to change you will change. One thing about MDOC, they know how to fix the paper work up to make it seen as if they are doing their job. You can get more drugs and anything else right here. I have witness a lot in my time here. Do I sound angry, I am not I am hurt and sick. Because they have allowed my kidney to progress to stage five which been the highest. They told me years ago I had protein in my urine, but I went years without any help. Now, it seen the eyes are on me because my family are on their case. Every inmate is not without family. Yes, you do have many inmates that family have giving up on, but my sister and I are not them. I do not want special attention; I want to treat, and to live how the state says on paper we are living. The same way when it is time for the big inspection we are promised certain food if we please clean up to pass this inspection. So I beg of anyone to please understand Mississippi Department of Correction is a joke. They will let you die or even kill yourself. We are told when visitors come into the prison do not talk to them. Well I have the right to talk to anyone and if the health department or anyone comes I will talk to him or her, because this is my life and I should or anyone else should be force to live like this. They use unlawful punishments to try to shut us up. I need help. I need a inmate to help me, but for some reason they will not allow me to move with my sister, so she can help me. There are mother and daughter, aunties, and nieces housed together and also there are a total of 12 inmates acting as orally for others inmates. I have all the names of the inmates acting as a orally if need to be giving. However, the subject of my sister is been danced around. A form of discrimination. My sister (Gladys Scott) and I were housed together for over ten years and not once have we ever caused any problem. We were spit up because in 2003 the Commissioner came with the order to separate all family members. Because its payback because my family is holding them accountable to do what they are paid to do. Also, do to the fact Mr. Daniels on it’s a New Day & Grassroots are keeping the supports inform that is been pointed out to me in a negative way. Now that I am sitting everyday because of my sickness I have time to use my typewriter. MDOC have gotten away with to much. In addition, some of the things that go on here I truly believe that Mr. Epps do not know.
Visit the links below for more information on Jamie Scott:
Free The Scott Sisters
Media Campaign Links on Imprisoned Women’s Rights Watch