First in a two-part series on private prisons
Prisons are filled with stress and violence; without proper supervision they can revert to primitive places. That's what happened at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, an NPR news investigation has determined.
As the nation's largest juvenile prison, Walnut Grove houses 1,200 boys and young men in a sprawling one-story complex ringed by security fences about an hour's drive east of Jackson. The State of Mississippi pays a private corrections company to run the prison.
NPR's investigation found that allegations swirling around the prison raise the fundamental question of whether profits have distorted the mission of rehabilitating young inmates.
An Environment Of Violence
Walnut Grove "started out and it was formed to be something good for youth, but somewhere down the line it took a turn for the worse," said former inmate Clayborne Henderson, 27. He spent two years for kidnapping in "the Grove," as they call it, between his 19th and 21st birthdays. Now he's working at a car wash and taking community college courses in Jackson, trying to straighten out his life.
He and other former inmates describe an environment of violence inside the youth prison as so pervasive it became entertainment.
"It'd be like setting up a fight deal like you would with two dogs," Henderson said. "I did witness twice while I was at Walnut Grove, they actually bet on it. It was payday for the guards."
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU National Prison Project have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against the prison operator, GEO Group, the prison administration and state officials. The complaint describes rampant contraband brought in by guards, sex between female guards and male inmates, inadequate medical care, prisoners held inhumanely in isolation, guards brutalizing inmates and inmate-on-inmate violence that was so brutal it led to brain damage.
"When we began investigating conditions inside this facility and seeing how these kids were living with the beat downs and the sexual abuse and violence and corruption, it became a no-brainer. It became something we had to do," said Sheila Bedi, the lead attorney on the case and deputy legal director for the SPLC.
Earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice launched its own investigation into some of these charges. A spokesperson in Washington, D.C., said the probe is ongoing and declined to comment.
Questionable Prison Guards
Several former inmates who spoke to NPR say guards are a big part of the problem. Justin Bowling, who spent 17 months in the Grove in 2007 and 2008 for marijuana possession, says the prison is overrun with gangs, whose members include correctional officers.
"A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened," Bowling said.
There's also a problem of too few guards. A state audit in 2005 and another one last year noted that staffing at Walnut Grove decreased even as the prisoner population increased.
According to the audit, in 2009 there were three inmate injuries a day. In the first six months of 2010 there was more than one fight a day, an assault on staff at least every other day and nine attempted suicides.
The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, whose members represent youth facilities in all 50 states, reports that a guard-to-inmate ratio of 1 officer to 10 or 12 juvenile prisoners is common. The state audit of Walnut Grove found the guard-to-inmate ratio to be 1 to 60. Salaries are the largest expense of a correctional budget, and reducing staffing is typically a way to keep costs down.
Pablo Paez, vice president for corporate relations for GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla., declined repeated requests by NPR to give the company's side of the story. He cited the pending lawsuit. GEO, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is the nation's second largest prison corporation and had more than $1 billion in revenue last year.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also declined repeated requests for an interview, citing the litigation. In a brief email in January, he wrote, "If staff ... abused inmates they should be punished. However, I have no knowledge of them abusing inmates."
He added that the facility has improved since GEO took over last August. Two months later, his spokesperson confirmed in an email to NPR that the Department of Corrections had hired an independent consultant, experienced in fixing troubled lockups, to review operations at the Grove.
Ethel Heard is one of 100 parents who have banded together to pressure the state to make reforms at Walnut Grove. Her 21-year-old son, Tyrone, is serving time there for armed robbery.
"We know that our children have made mistakes," she said. "We're not asking that they open the cell doors and let our kids out. We're asking for them to have better treatment."
Creating A Distinct Youth Facility
When Walnut Grove opened 10 years ago it was a model youth facility. The idea was to get teenaged felons out of the notorious Parchman penitentiary and away from hardened criminals. As one young inmate said, "An old fool has lived his life, but a young fool can change."
But that's not how it has turned out, says state representative John Mayo, a member of the corrections committee that oversees Walnut Grove and other Mississippi prisons.
"To me, in my mind, it's just a prison," he said. "It's another adult prison."
Mayo says the Legislature kept raising the age of inmates sent there — from 18 all the way up to 22. He says he voted against the age increases.
Today, Walnut Grove is the only juvenile facility in the country that locks up 22-year-olds with 13-year-olds.
"Initially, it was to be 13- through 18-year-olds," Mayo said. "And then, quite frankly, that did not populate Walnut Grove to what I'm going to call a 'profitable operation.'"
Two years ago, Walnut Grove added 500 beds to accommodate all the new prisoners. According to the 2008 and 2009 annual reports for Cornell Companies, the prison operator at the time, the expansion created an extra $3.4 million in revenue. GEO acquired Cornell last year.
George Cole, a career educator who served as principal of the prison school for four years, was at a legislative hearing held in January to look into alleged abuses at Walnut Grove.
"I thought when I went to Walnut Grove I was going to a place that was really interested in the rehabilitation of our children, but I found out quite the opposite. And I guess as a private facility they had to make money," Cole testified.
The hearing was heavily attended by inmates' parents, most of whom are black, and all of whom wore bright orange T-shirts that read, "Friends & Family Of Youth Incarcerated At Walnut Grove." Though invited, neither GEO nor the state corrections department sent a representative to the hearing.
Taking Educational Grant Money
NPR examined thousands of pages of public records associated with federal grants paid to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. Records show that Warden Brick Tripp and his deputy wardens — already paid by GEO — have been receiving checks for $2,500 to $5,000 as "supplemental salaries" for administering federal Title 1 education funds.
"The warden and deputy warden had no dealings whatsoever with educating students," Cole stated emphatically in a phone interview.
The warden declined an interview request. Jeff Webb, the lawyer who represents the five-member Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, which writes the checks, says overseeing the grants is part of the warden's job, though he did not say why deputy wardens receive paycheck bonuses.
GEO Group's Paez was also asked why the prison administration was receiving supplementary paychecks from federal education grants, which have nothing to do with the civil rights lawsuit or Justice Department investigation. He said he had no comment.
NPR forwarded the paycheck supplements to the U.S. Department of Education and asked if this was normal. Chief of Communications Justin Hamilton said the agency is concerned and has referred the matter to its Office of Inspector General for investigation.
Support For Walnut Grove
Despite all the controversy, the youth prison has staunch defenders.
Dennise Jones-Putnam, municipal clerk of the town of Walnut Grove, says her nephew is in the prison boot camp program. "He will be one of the first ones to tell you that's the best thing that's ever happened to him. It's turned his life totally around," she said.
As to why the kids are frequently placed on lockdown and fight with staff?
"Walnut Grove is not a day care," said the Rev. Justin Chaney, the prison chaplain there from 2007 to 2010. "I'm afraid a lot of people think it might be just a little detention center. It's maximum security. So yea, you do have those that can be rough."
Grady Sims, mayor of Walnut Grove, says he visits the prison frequently and knows the staff well. "I wouldn't interfere with the way they're operating it," he said. "They've done an excellent job."
Why The Prison Matters To The Town
The town of Walnut Grove is so small there's no stoplight or supermarket. In fact, inmates outnumber citizens 2 to 1. The prison just about saved this town from extinction. The 200 prison jobs helped fill the void when a shirt manufacturer and a glove maker closed and moved overseas several years ago.
The mayor's own vending company has 18 snack machines inside the prison.
"It's been a sweet deal for Walnut Grove," Sims said. Indeed, every month, the prison pays the town $15,000 in lieu of taxes — which comprises nearly 15 percent of its annual budget.
"For a small town, that's a lot of money," the mayor said, "and it helps us maintain a full-time police department that we wouldn't be able to afford without that income."
GEO pays the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority — which sends the prison all of its grant money — $4,500 a month. Webb, the authority's lawyer, says the money is kept in escrow and rarely spent.
Finally, there's a full-time state corrections employee whose job is to monitor how the prison is run. His salary is reimbursed by GEO.
All of this raises the question: Is oversight of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility negligent because it's a golden goose?
"All this community is just making so much money off Walnut Grove that no one wants to upset the applecart. Then that means they're not gonna make their money anymore," says State Representative Earle Banks, chairman of the state Juvenile Justice Committee. He called the recent hearing to investigate Walnut Grove. Banks, a plaintiff's lawyer, is suing the prison for wrongful death of an inmate.
That hands-off policy might be about to change.
"If there's mistreatment going on at Walnut Grove and the Justice Department finds that it is, they ought to sue the hell out of somebody," Mayo said. "I can't understand why we have to be sued to do what's right."
Aarti Shahani contributed to this NPR News investigation and report.