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Groundbreaking Settlement in SPLC Case Protects Incarcerated Children from Abuse in Mississippi

Children and teens incarcerated in Mississippi will no longer be housed in a privately run prison or subjected to brutal solitary confinement under the terms of a groundbreaking settlement reached in an SPLC lawsuit.

The federal class action suit charged that conditions at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which houses boys convicted as adults, are unconstitutional. The facility is operated by GEO Group Inc., the nation’s second largest private prison corporation.

“This represents a sea change in the way the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) will treat children in its custody,” said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “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.”

Under the proposed decree, the MDOC will be required to remove boys from the GEO-operated prison and house them at a stand-alone facility governed by juvenile justice, rather than adult, standards. The MDOC will be required to provide them with a broad variety of rehabilitative services and strong protections from sexual abuse and violence. The decree also categorically bars the state from subjecting young people to solitary confinement – the first time a federal court has banned the barbaric practice of housing children in long-term isolation.

“It’s 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,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “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.”

The lawsuit, filed in November 2010 by the SPLC, ACLU and civil rights attorney Robert B. McDuff, challenges notoriously abusive conditions in the GEO-run facility. The lawsuit describes the routine practice of GEO staffers peddling drugs to teenagers in their custody, subjecting them to brutal beatings, sexual exploitation and solitary confinement, and failing to protect them from violence at the hands of older, predatory prisoners. One youth suffered permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which GEO staffers were complicit.

The consent decree will also require the MDOC to protect the adults who will be housed at Walnut Grove from physical and sexual abuse, violence, excessive use of force and prolonged isolation, and will require the MDOC to increase its oversight of GEO.

The consent decree still must be approved by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves in Jackson.