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Termination of Consent Decree at Mississippi Prison Denied; Facility to Close

Ongoing violations of prisoners’ rights at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility (WGCF) led a federal district court to deny the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) motion to terminate a consent decree. The evidence, the court held on June 10, 2015, painted “a picture of a facility struggling with disorder, periodic mayhem, and staff ineptitude which leads to perpetual danger to the inmates and staff.”

WGCF, which housed youthful offenders, was operated by Management and Training Corp., a private prison firm. PLN previously reported the court’s entry of a consent decree “to resolve the allegations in the Complaint related to the protection from harm and violence, excessive use of force, punitive isolation and inadequate medical care.”

The district court found the facility, managed by the GEO Group at the time, had “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.30].

Since the entry of the consent decree in 2012, riots occurred at WGCF in December 2013 and July 2014. The events of the July 2014 riot were captured on video, and the court said they “can best be described as shocking.”

“Staff lost complete control of the zones for a significant period of time,” wrote the court. “Inmates were brutally assaulted repeatedly with hands, feet, and objects including sticks, trays, and a microwave. Some of the attackers stood over their victims and urinated on them.”

The 2013 riot resulted in 16 prisoners being treated at outside hospitals for injuries that included “multiple stabbing and puncture wounds, lacerations, and fractures.” Nine prisoners required outside treatment after the July 2014 riot for similar injuries.

The district court noted the incompetence of the untrained and inadequate number of staff during the disturbances. According to former Washington DOC director Eldon Vail, who served as an expert in the case, it took guards nearly 90 minutes to establish a control center. During the 2014 riot, a gas canister went off “in the command tower when officers attempted to discharge it, an incident which led to the officers abandoning the tower because they were not wearing respirators,” the court observed.

Not only were prisoners subject to harm from other prisoners, they also were abused by staff members. Three prisoners alleged that on March 7, 2015, a guard forced them “to perform sexual acts on him, promising them that refusal would result in retaliation by gang members.” An investigation was launched and surveillance video showed the guard was in the prisoners’ cell for an extended period of time.

Gangs were the most significant threat to prisoners’ safety at WGCF. “With their penchant for using violence and the threat of harm as a form of intimidation and control, gang members, left unchecked, have proven that the havoc they can cause at the prison is substantial,” the district court noted. “When gangs run amok and control a facility, as they do here, it certainly can lead to riots, but it also can lead to significant underreporting of assaults and other crimes that occur at the prison.”

The integrity of locks was also an issue at the facility. Prisoners regularly defeated the locks on their cell doors, allowing them to move at will about the prison.

The court said the ongoing safety and security violations at WGCF required it to “continue to enforce the consent decree in this matter as necessary.” Accordingly, the MDOC’s motion to terminate the consent decree was denied and it remained in effect. See: DePriest v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:10-cv-00663-CWR-FKB; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75738.

In July 2016, citing a declining prison population and budget cuts, Mississippi officials announced that WGCF would be closing in September, resulting in the loss of around 200 jobs in the town of Walnut Grove. Prisoners at the facility will be transferred to other state prisons.

“We were getting our good reputation back, and this has just been devastating,” said Walnut Grove Mayor Brian Gomillion.

“We had a new well drilled exclusively for the prison, a water tank built for the prison, gas infrastructure built to the facility that the town doesn’t need otherwise, sewer projects built for the facility. These are all things we’ve got to maintain despite there being no revenue from this facility,” he added.

Considering the numerous persistent problems at the prison, however, closing it was likely the only available option to ensure the safety of the prisoners held there.

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Related legal case

DePriest v. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority