Staff members at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi abused their authority by selling drugs to the youths in their care, brutally beating them and even engaging in sexual relationships with them. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against the for-profit prison operators on behalf of the teenagers and young men held at the facility.
The lawsuit described a facility known for a culture of violence and corruption – a culture perpetuated by Walnut Grove’s management. In addition to the sexual relationships and selling of drugs, handcuffed youths were kicked, punched and beaten. Youths secure in their cells were blinded with chemicals. Other youths suffered multiple stabbings and beatings — including one who will live with permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which prison staffers were complicit.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the conditions at the facility in late 2010 and in March 2012 reported finding a wide array of inhumane and unconstitutional conditions at the prison. The report said the state showed “deliberate indifference” in failing to protect youths from harm in seven major areas: sexual misconduct between guards and inmates; use of excessive force by guards; excessive use of chemical agents; poor use-of-force policies, reporting, training and investigations; youth-on-youth violence and sexual assault; and seriously inadequate medical and mental health care. Sexual misconduct, it said, “was among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”
A groundbreaking settlement agreement was reached in the SPLC lawsuit in 2012. That agreement will ensure children and teens incarcerated in Mississippi will no longer be housed in the privately run prison or subjected to brutal solitary confinement.
Under the decree, the Mississippi Department of Corrections was required to remove youths from the prison and house them at a stand-alone facility governed by juvenile justice, rather than adult, standards. The state will be required to provide them with a broad variety of rehabilitative services and strong protections from sexual abuse and violence.
The decree categorically barred 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 also required the department of corrections to protect the adults who will be housed at Walnut Grove from physical and sexual abuse, violence, excessive use of force and prolonged isolation.
In 2015, the SPLC returned to court after two riots erupted at the prison. A federal judge ruled that the Mississippi Department of Corrections violated the Eighth Amendment rights of the prisoners at the facility by failing to protect them from violence by “gangs run amok.”
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves noted that gangs control Walnut Grove and that prison guards often collude with them, leaving prisoners vulnerable to attack and fostering conditions for two riots in the past year – violations of the Eighth Amendment right to reasonable protection. The judge ordered the department and the prison’s for-profit operator to implement basic safety measures to end gang control as well as violence by guards against prisoners at the facility.