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Federal Consent Decree Bans Isolation at Mississippi Youth Prison

In February 2012, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) agreed to stop housing juveniles at a privately-run prison in Leake County, Mississippi and enact multiple reforms to protect both the juveniles and the adult prisoners who will remain behind from abuse by prison employees.

The Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) was opened in 1999. It was designed to incarcerate prisoners who are 13 to 22 years of age. Initially, it was owned by a group of private investors. They sold it to GEO Group in August 2010. In February 2012, it housed 958 prisoners.

WGYCF was designed to house juvenile prisoners who had been convicted as adults. However, conditions at the prison were so abysmal that, in November 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (NPP) and Jackson civil-rights attorney Robert B. McDuff filed a class-action civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court alleging violations of the prisoners' constitutional rights.

The suit alleged that WGYCF employees smuggled drugs into the prison, beat prisoners, sexually assaulted prisoners, placed prisoners in isolation for lengthy periods and denied prisoners medical care and educational programs. In the consent decree, the MDOC agreed to immediately transfer prisoners under the age of 18 to a MDOC-run prison and to create and place them into a Youthful Offender Unit. Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said that the plan is to transfer those prisoners to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County as soon as possible.

The consent decree, which only applies to male prisoners 17 and under and male prisoners 18 or 19 who are housed in the YOU, bans the use of isolation on those prisoners by requiring at least four hours of daily out-of-cell activities and programming, including educational programming, for those prisoners held in single cells. Although the decree allows some used of single ceiling for disciplinary or emergency purposes, it requires extensive due process and still maintains the twenty-hour daily limit for isolation. The decree also requires additional measures to protect the prisoners from harm, including extensive documentation and videotaping of any use of force; bans the use of physical force, chemical or physical restrains, or painful positions for punishment; and requires proper medical and dental care be provided and visitation allowed.

"This represents a sea change in the way MDOC will treat children in its custody," said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for 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."

"It's been known for a long time that prolonged solitary confinement causes terrible suffering and psychiatric breakdown even in mature, healthy adults--let alone in emotionally vulnerable children and teenagers," according to NPP associate director Margaret Winter. "Getting these kids out of the greedy hands of GEO is a big step forward, and the ban on solitary confinement in this decree is truly unprecedented."

According to the ACLU, the decree also provides some protection against physical and sexual abuse, violence, excessive use of force and prolonged isolation to the adult prisoners remaining at WGYCF. See: C.B. v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, U.S.D.C.-S.D.Miss., No. 3:10-cv-663.

Additional Sources: ACLU Press Release, Associated Press,

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Related legal case

C.B. v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority