11/16/2010

Federal Lawsuit Reveals Inhumane Conditions at For-Profit Youth Prison

Youth at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility Suffering Brutal Conditions, Horrific Physical Abuse and Denials of Educational and Medical Services

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Jackson, MS civil rights attorney Robert B. McDuff today filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the for-profit operators of Mississippi's Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF), charging that the children there are forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff.  
 
Among the named defendants in the lawsuit, filed on behalf of all the teenagers and young men in the facility, are the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority and the Geo Group, Inc., the second largest private prison company in the country. The facility houses youth between the ages of 13 and 22 who have been tried and convicted as adults.  
 
“The Mississippi legislature established WGYCF with the hope that the young men housed there would be provided a second chance,” said Sheila Bedi, Deputy Legal Director of the SPLC. “Unfortunately, private prison companies prioritized their profits over the well being of Mississippi’s youth. As a result, the young men imprisoned in this facility endure unspeakable abuses at a tremendous cost to Mississippi’s taxpayers.”
 
The lawsuit describes a facility well known for its culture of violence and corruption –a culture that is perpetuated by WGYCF’s incompetent management. Some prison staff exploit youth by selling drugs inside the facility. Other staff members abuse their power by engaging in sexual relationships with the youth in their care.  Many youth have suffered serious and permanent physical injuries as a result of the WGYCF’s deficient security policies and violent staff members. Youth who are handcuffed and defenseless are kicked, punched and beaten all over their bodies. Youth secure in their cells are blinded with chemical restraints.
 
The private entities that operate WGYCF are paid based on the number of youth housed at WGYCF, which was constructed with over $41 million of taxpayer funding and opened its doors in 2001. Since then, the Mississippi legislature has tripled the size of the facility, leading to significantly increased profits for Geo Group.
 
The facility houses youth who have been tried and convicted in the adult criminal justice system. More than two-thirds of the youth currently housed at WGYCF are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
 
“Our nation has been on a binge of mass over-incarceration -- and it’s a symptom of that syndrome when lawmakers decide to send kids as young as 13 into the adult criminal justice system,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project.  “It ratchets up the likelihood of bad outcomes when the law commits kids to prisons run by profit-driven corporations, because skimping on basic supervision to squeeze out more profit leads to suicides, rapes and beatings.”  
 
According to the lawsuit, as a result of the unlawful conditions at WGYCF, youth suffer serious harm that can result in life threatening injuries. One young man was tied to his bunk for almost 24 hours, brutally raped and sexually assaulted after prison staff failed to heed his pleas for protection. Other youth suffered multiple stabbings and beatings—including one youth who will live with permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which prison staff were entirely complicit.
 
According to Michael Mcintosh, father of a youth involved in the lawsuit and a founder of Friends and Family of Youth Incarcerated at Walnut Grove, a coalition of individuals who advocate for WGYCF youth, “Our children’s lives shouldn’t be at risk because corporations cut corners in order to increase their profits. This abuse must end immediately and the youth at Walnut Grove should be moved to juvenile justice facilities that can provide for their care.”