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Audit Finds Mississippi Private Prison Plagued by Violence, Run by Gangs

by Kevin Bliss

Former warden Jody Bradley depended on gang leaders at a privately-run Mississippi prison to maintain control of the facility.

That was one finding of a December 2018 internal audit by Management & Training Corporation (MTC) at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility (WCCF), which the company operates for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Calling Bradley’s management ineffective, the audit accused him of ceding power and control to prisoners, leading to coercion and corruption of staff members.

Located near the Louisiana border in Woodville, WCCF houses 900 offenders, most of whom are classified maximum security, including former residents of a high-risk housing unit at the State Penitentiary in Parchman that closed in 2010. Some 80 percent of prisoners at the MTC-run facility are gang-affiliated.

A 2016 study of 39 prisons across the country by sociologist David Pyrooz with the University of Colorado at Boulder found that gang-related homicides nationwide averaged just two per year for every 100,000 prisoners. But WCCF averaged two per year with just under 1,000 prisoners – a homicide rate twice as high as Detroit’s.

Since February 2017, WCCF – which prisoners called “the Killing Field” in a 2014 article published by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger – has counted six homicides, four of which were gang-related. One of the slain prisoners was Brad Fitch, a 28-year-old member of the Simon City Royals gang who was brutally murdered by two fellow gang members the night he arrived at the facility in January 2018.

According to a log kept by prison supervisors, at least 170 weapons were confiscated at WCCF over a six-month period in 2018, during which there were nine assaults and three attempted assaults, including a trio of stabbings that resulted in serious injuries.

The audit also found substandard living conditions for prisoners, with moldy cell walls that leaked water onto prisoners’ bunks, along with shortages of soap, blankets and even food. However, according to Jody Owens, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has headed a pair of class-action lawsuits against MTC over conditions at its Mississippi facilities, private prison operators cut the most corners with respect to payroll.

With a pay scale just over the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and a high number of violent incidents, including attacks on guards, WCCF has an annual staff turnover rate of close to 90 percent. As many as one-third of the 241 positions at the facility have been vacant – the number stood at 23 percent when the audit was published – meaning some guards worked more than 40 hours of overtime a week in addition to their regular shifts.

Since 75 percent of guard positions at WCCF are filled by women, there were frequently not enough male guards to conduct strip-searches of high-risk prisoners, and no SORT team could be mustered during emergencies. Auditors also found that the overextended staff failed to conduct drug tests or enforce basic rules, sometimes leaving housing areas unmonitored for up to a week at a time.

MTC is not alone in its staffing woes. The Mississippi DOC reported in July 2019 that the number of guards at three state prisons had fallen to 627 from 905 two years earlier. At those facilities, the ratio of prisoners to guards ranged from 11:1 at Parchman, Mississippi’s most infamous prison, to 23:1 at the Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) – a ratio far higher than in other states.

“We regularly have clients begging to be kept out of SMCI because of the violence,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi. “They’re scared for their lives.”

“This is not a sustainable situation,” added David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, who characterized the prisoner-to-guard ratio “among the highest I’ve ever seen.”

A lockdown at SMCI in response to staff shortages in February 2019 was still in effect six months later. Among other deficiencies attributed to understaffing was a failure by guards to conduct required prisoner counts, with a 2019 memo from SCMI’s superintendent promising that “any staff falsifying count will be reprimanded. This STOPS NOW!”

Mississippi corrections commissioner Pelicia Hall said she had asked state lawmakers to raise guard pay above the current level of $12.33 an hour – the lowest in the nation, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The average hourly wage for prison guards nationwide is just over $23.70. The state legislature approved only a three percent raise, which is still low enough that a guard with a family of three qualifies for food stamps.

The DOC has paid MTC at least $78 million to operate WCCF since the company assumed operational control of the prison in 2013. Under its current contract, MTC receives about $43 per prisoner per day – an amount the audit admits “is considered mediocre.” The company claims it has returned money to the DOC for leaving staff positions unfilled, but declined to provide details of those reimbursements. It also said it has performed a comprehensive audit every two years to identify risk areas that prevent WCCF from operating in a safe and secure manner.

For the most recent audit, MTC used an outside consultant firm led by former federal Bureau of Prisons employee D. Scott Dodrill. Normally an “in-house” report, the 83-page audit was obtained and published by The Marshall Project, an online news organization focusing on the criminal justice system.

Even though the audit report said Warden Bradley had responded to problems at WCCF by going to gang leaders for help in controlling the facility, MTC regional vice president Sara Revell said it was inaccurate to state that gangs ran the prison. Company spokesman Issa Arnita added that the story published by The Marshall Project “cherry picked certain findings in the audit to paint a distorted picture of what really happens in the prison on a day-to-day basis.”

“We have dedicated STG [gang] officers who assess each inmate on intake to determine where that inmate and others will be the safest,” Arnita said. “The previous warden made comments regarding the prison’s management of STGs which may have been interpreted as [they] were in control of the facility.”

Yet the audit itself noted that gang leaders decided which prisoners got jobs and perks. They were escorted by personal protection details at WCCF, and were free to decorate their cells with gang paraphernalia. The auditors said that during their visits, “it never felt like staff were in control of the offender population.”

“The prevalence of not only STG activity, but staff tolerance of it cannot be understated,” the audit found. “[Warden Bradley] speaks with the gang lords/leaders and asks them to ‘control their men,’” threatening to lock down the unit if they fail, and flatly telling the auditors that that was how Mississippi prisons operate.

“It ain’t right, but it’s the truth,” the report quotes Bradley, who also reportedly told the auditors that he was encouraged in his approach by the head of the criminal investigations division of the state DOC.

However, DOC public information officer Grace Fisher said that “under no circumstances would the [DOC] convey that it condones or encourages the use of gangs to manage inmate behavior,” pointing to a longstanding zero-tolerance policy toward gang activity in the prison system.

Since the audit was published last December, MTC has hired a new warden to run WCCF and has raised guard salaries to $11.25 per hour — still lower than in state prisons. Other areas identified as needing improvement, such as poor living conditions and inadequate supplies, also have been addressed, according to Arnita, who stressed that MTC had resolved 83 percent of some 543 problems cited by the auditors.

“A construction crew has been on site for several weeks,” he said, noting that the facility is two decades old, with a leaky roof that the company has been working with DOC officials to get repaired. “They plan to have a new roof installed by the end of the year. Repairing the leaking will solve several other maintenance problems that happen as a result of the leaking. We also have a cell hardening project in the works once the roof is replaced. This will improve the security of individual cells.”

In 2014, Arnita told the Clarion-Ledger that MTC had made significant improvements since taking over operations at WCCF.

“Our priority in corrections is the safety and security of our staff, offenders and the community,” he stressed at the time, before the spate of assaults, murders and indications that gang members were running the facility.

Previously, a report by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) joint legislative committee found that assault rates at private prisons averaged two to three times the rate in state-run facilities. As an extreme example, the privately-operated Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which has since closed, had an assault rate of 27 per 100 prisoners while the highest rate in a state-run prison was just seven per 100 prisoners. 

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Sources: themarshallproject.org, clarionledger.com, wapt.com, USA Today, theguardian.com