By Jerry Mitchell | Clarion Ledger | February 27, 2012
Mississippi juveniles no longer will be housed in a private prison or held in solitary confinement, according to a lawsuit’s proposed settlement.
“This represents a sea change in the way the Mississippi Department of Corrections will treat children in its custody,” Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement. “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.”
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps confirmed Monday there is a proposed consent decree with the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union to resolve a lawsuit they filed in 2010 challenging conditions for juveniles at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility as unconstitutional. Epps would not comment further.
The facility, run by The GEO Group, has been housing juveniles convicted as adults. As of last week, there were 958 inmates up to age 22 at the facility. Eighteen of the inmates were 18 or younger.
Two years ago Monday, 14 young inmates were injured in a melee at the prison. Michael McIntosh Sr.’s son, Michael Jr., was beaten and stabbed so severely he suffered brain damage.
Under the proposed decree, expected to be finalized March 22, MDOC in the future would house juveniles at a stand-alone facility and would be banned from keeping them in solitary confinement. Corrections officials also would be required to provide the youth with rehabilitative services and strong protections from sexual abuse and violence.
“It has 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,” Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a statement. “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.”
Pablo Paez, spokesman for The GEO Group, said Monday, “As a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on litigation related matters; however it is important to clarify that our company only began managing the facility in late 2010.”
The SPLC, ACLU and Jackson lawyer Robert McDuff filed the lawsuit against the GEO Group on behalf of 13 offenders at the Leake County prison. The lawsuit alleged young offenders were being forced to live in “barbaric, unconstitutional conditions.”
The lawsuit also alleged guards beat inmates, smuggled drugs to the youths and engaged in sexual acts with them.
Epps responded at the time that if anyone was beaten by a guard, that guard would be punished.
The Walnut Grove prison opened in 1999. The facility was built for youthful inmates, ages 13 to 22, and owned by private individuals. It was sold to Cornell, which in August 2010 was purchased by GEO.
On Monday, McIntosh and other members of the Family and Friends of Youth Incarcerated at Walnut Grove gathered outside the Corrections Department on the second anniversary of the 2010 melee, protesting conditions for young offenders.
“What we feel fueled this incident is the state forgot about our children,” he said. “We will never forget, and it is our duty to make sure that no one forgets – the failure of the guards and the unnecessary bloodshed.”
Amie Huggins-Granger of Hazlehurst said her son, who remains at Walnut Grove, witnessed a “brutal fight where multiple youth were stabbed” during the Christmas break.
She praised Epps and those working to improve the living conditions of youth. “But improving conditions is not enough as long as there are children in the adult criminal justice system and as long as our children are being used for profit,” she said.
Claiborne Henderson, who was incarcerated at Walnut Grove, said he witnessed “a boy being stabbed 22 times and left lying in a pool of his own blood.”
Despite the abuse he endured at Walnut Grove, he will graduate this May from college, he said. “I am working a full-time job that I love, and I am a law-abiding taxpayer. But I can’t forget that it’s my tax dollars that support abusive private prisons throughout the state of Mississippi.”