America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Walnut Grove

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.

This youth prison has violent, abusive conditions But the company that runs it makes millions

From an email by Matt Nelson, :
3 March 2011

This youth prison has violent, abusive conditions
But the company that runs it makes millions
Join us in calling on Mississippi officials to shut down this prison:

Teenagers and young men locked up at the youth prison in Walnut Grove, Mississippi live in a nightmarishly abusive and violent environment.

According to a lawsuit against the prison, guards have sold drugs to the youth there, engaged in sexual relationships with them, beaten them while they are handcuffed and defenseless, and looked the other way as some inmates are brutally attacked by others.1 The prison is privately-run, and its management has tried to increase their profits by cutting essential safety, health and educational services.

It’s sick. Mississippi shouldn’t be paying a private company to neglect and abuse youth prisoners. Will you join us in demanding that Mississippi officials cancel the state’s contract with the company that operates the prison? It takes just a moment:

Two youths have lost their lives in the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility over the past three years and countless others endure daily threats to their safety. The violence at the prison was highlighted a year ago when a melee broke out in the prison, leaving multiple youth injured and 21-year-old Michael McIntosh with permanent brain damage.2

Ross Walton, who spent three years inside the Walnut Grove prison said this when he testified recently in front of the Miss. State Legislature:

“Walnut Grove treated us like we were nothing. Like we didn’t matter. Like our destiny was to spend the rest of our lives locked up, making more money for the private prison corporations and making our mothers cry….We have the potential to turn our lives around and make you proud. And we all deserve more than an abusive prison that cares more about profits than people.”

A for-profit youth prison, like Walnut Grove, has a strong financial incentive to imprison as many young people as possible on the cheap, and a financial disincentive to rehabilitate prisoners (which would reduce the demand for prison beds). This profit motive is a big part of why the Walnut Grove prison has such terrible conditions.

The prison is run by the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), the second largest for-profit prison company in the country. The company makes hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and has a long history of health and safety violations in their facilities.

A systemic problem

We’ve seen before how private prisons create openings for corruption and abuse. In the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a private juvenile prison company bribed two judges to fill their cells with youth who committed minor infractions. One of the judges, Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr., was recently convicted of accepting bribes and kickbacks for putting juveniles into detention centers. He and another judge, Michael Conahan, are said to have received $2.6 million for their scheme.3

In Boise Idaho, guards at a corporate prison watched, but did not intervene as a man was beaten unconscious by another inmate. This victim now lives with permanent brain damage and the company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), faces an FBI Civil Rights investigation.4

Ending the abuse at Walnut Grove

Some of the youth imprisoned at Walnut Grove have committed serious crimes, but 67% of them are there for non-violent offenses.5 But no matter what crime they’ve committed, children’s lives shouldn’t be at risk because corporations cut corners in order to increase their profits. Youth prisoners must be given safe and healthy conditions, and an opportunity to lead successful lives after their incarceration.

The abuse at Walnut Grove needs to end immediately and the youth there should be moved to facilities that can provide for their care and rehabilitation. Your voice can help make that happen. Please join us in calling on Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner, to cancel the state’s contract with the GEO Group. And please ask your friends and family to do the same. It just takes a minute:

Thanks and Peace,
— James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Matt, Natasha and the rest of the team
March 2nd, 2011

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1. “Federal Lawsuit Reveals Inhumane Conditions at For-Profit Youth Prison,” SPLC, 11-16-2010

2. “C.B., et al. v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, et al.” SPLC, 11-16-2010

3. “The verdict’s in, let change begin,” The Times Leader, 2-20-2011

4. “‘The public doesn’t know what goes on behind these walls,'” KBOI, 2-28-2011

5. “Federal lawsuit seeks to end years of physical, sexual abuse of teenage inmates,” Better Mississippi Report, 12-20-2010