Last year, the GEO Group – the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company – announced that it was pulling out of its contracts to operate three Mississippi prisons. That development came shortly after a federal court announced sweeping changes at the GEO-run Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) in Leake County, Mississippi following the settlement of a lawsuit.
U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote that WGYCF, a prison for youthful male offenders ages 13 to 22 convicted as adults, “has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”
A March 20, 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found “systemic, egregious practices” at WGYCF, including “brazen” sexual activity between staff and offenders that was “among the worst that we’ve seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” Poorly trained guards at WGYCF beat youths and used excessive pepper spray. Employees sold drugs at the facility. Prisoners were denied adequate medical care and not afforded “even the most basic education services.” There was a culture of “deliberate indifference” to possessing homemade knives used in gang fights and rapes. Finally, the report noted that some guards had gang affiliations.
“A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang,” said former WGYCF prisoner Justin Bowling. “If an inmate wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about some fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.”
The DOJ report concluded that the “State of Mississippi is deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of young men confined at WGYCF. Evidence discovered at WGYCF reveals systemic, egregious and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.”
GEO Group’s spokesman blamed the abuses on Cornell Companies, the contractor that ran WGYCF before GEO bought Cornell in 2010. However, Jonathan Smith, chief of special litigation in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the abuses continued after GEO assumed management at the facility, and according to Judge Reeves, “Following GEO and Cornell’s merger, key personnel, policies and training at WGYCF did not change substantially.”
The lawsuit challenging conditions at WGYCF, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU’s National Prison Project, named the state rather than GEO Group as a defendant. The case settled in March 2012, shortly after the release of the DOJ report, with the district court noting that an investigation by the plaintiff’s attorneys had “uncovered pervasive violations of state and federal civil and criminal law and a wholesale lack of accountability by prison officials.”
As part of the settlement, Mississippi agreed to remove all offenders age 17 and under, and all vulnerable youths under age 20, from WGYCF and transfer them to a Youthful Offender Unit (YOU) at the state-operated Central Mississippi Correctional Facility by December 1, 2012. The YOU is required to have a classification system to ensure that youth are “appropriately and safely housed” and “provided with reasonable safe living conditions and ... protected from violence and other physical or sexual abuse by staff and other youth or inmates.” The settlement further provides that physical force and “mechanical, physical or chemical restraints such as O.C. spray, pepper spray and mace” will not be used to punish youthful offenders.
Additionally, staff at the YOU are prohibited “from forcing inmates ... to engage in physical exertion that inflicts pain or discomfort, for example the practice of forcing youth to ‘alligator walk’ and to ‘duck walk,’” nor are staff allowed to “employ pain aversion behavior management techniques.” Solitary confinement will not be used in the YOU, though youths may be subject to in-cell confinement under certain circumstances. Youthful offenders will receive an “appropriate mix of interactive, structured rehabilitative and/or educational programming, recreational, and leisure activities outside of their cells on a daily basis, including weekends and holidays.” The settlement also addresses issues related to medical and mental health treatment, suicide prevention, disciplinary procedures, grievances, visitation and staffing.
Two monitors, James Austin and Paul DeMuro, were appointed to oversee compliance with the settlement agreement, with the state to pay the monitoring expenses. The settlement, entered as a consent decree, will last up to five years “from the date that the YOU houses at least half of all youth who are, at that point in time, eligible for the YOU.” See: DePriest v. Epps, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:10-cv-00663-CWR-FKB.
The week before GEO decided to pull out of WGYCF and two other prisons in Mississippi, the state’s Corrections Commissioner, Christopher Epps, praised the company. “Since GEO took over August 2010, have there been incidents? The answer is yes,” he said. “Will there be more? The answer is yes. But they’re doing better, and I’m pleased with it.”
The next week, after GEO announced it was withdrawing from its contracts to operate the three prisons, Epps changed his tune. He said he hoped the new contractor would “provide a better price for the taxpayers of the state and at the same time maybe do a better job in the operation of the facilities.”
GEO Group did not state a reason for leaving Mississippi, but the company’s CEO, George Zoley, said the company would discontinue operating the 1,500-bed East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which houses mentally ill prisoners, because it was “financially underperforming.” GEO also pulled out of its contract to operate the Marshall County Correctional Facility.
The company discontinued all of its Mississippi contracts by July 2012, and another private contractor, Management & Training Corporation (MTC), took over operations at the three facilities. MTC also manages the Wilkinson County Correctional Center in Woodville, Mississippi.
In May 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging filthy, dangerous and violent conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. PLN will report on that case in a future issue.
Sources: National Public Radio, Associated Press, www.mtctrains.com, www.bizjournals.com, www.aclu.org
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