Citing budgetary cuts, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) finally closed the troubled, privately-operated Walnut Grove Correctional Facility (WGCF) on September 15, 2016.
As previously reported in PLN, Walnut Grove had been under a federal consent decree since 2012 over allegations of guards smuggling drugs and having sex with youthful offenders, denial of medical care and educational services, and grossly unsafe conditions.
The federal judge over the case wrote that WGCF, managed by 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,” and that the prison “paint[ed] a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”
Juveniles were removed from Walnut Grove under the consent decree; the facility subsequently housed adult prisoners.
In 2015, the district court overseeing the litigation denied a motion to dissolve the decree, citing gang activity, cell doors that did not lock properly and continued problems with untrained, inexperienced guards. The prison had also experienced two major riots the year before. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.60; Nov. 2013, p.30].
The 2016 fiscal year resulted in a 5% – or $16.8 million – reduction in the MDOC’s budget, which was “lower than we anticipated,” said MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher. “Pursuant to an intensive budget review and evaluation, we have determined this is the most prudent action. We have space in our state run prisons to house the 900 inmates at Walnut Grove [elsewhere].”
Notably, the facility was shut down not due to the well-documented abuses but for fiscal reasons. The closure of the 1,260-bed WGCF was “long overdue,” said Jody Owens, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Walnut Grove Correctional Facility has long represented a failed approach to public safety that wasted taxpayer dollars and left Mississippi’s landscape dotted with far too many prisons.”
That closure puts an end to the $14.6 million contract that Utah-based Management & Training Corp. (MTC) held to operate the prison. However, it does not end the burden on taxpayers.
To build the state’s four privately-managed prisons, Mississippi officials took on substantial debt. The state still owes nearly $154 million in bond payments for WGCF, which are expected to be paid in full by 2028. The facility’s closure makes it an expensive albatross that will long remind local residents of the financial burden of mass incarceration.
The town of Walnut Grove is typical of the prison boom over the past few decades, as it banked on a prison to support its economy. About 300 of its 500 residents worked at WGCF until cuts in 2014, which resulted in a loss of about 100 jobs. The facility’s closure put an end to the $180,000 annual payments the town received from MTC in lieu of ad valorem taxes, as well as utility payments.
“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,” complained Walnut Grove Mayor Brian Gomillion. “These are all things we’ve got to maintain despite there being no revenue from this facility.”
The prison boom is turning into a bust as get-tough-on-crime policies are being viewed as failures, leading to prison closures. Even Texas, with the nation’s largest state prison system, at around 146,000 prisoners, recently closed three facilities and is expected to shutter a fourth by September 2017. Those closures are expected to save around $49.5 million.
Sources: Clarion Ledger, www.nytimes.com, www.jacksonfreepress.com, Dallas Morning News
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