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The Unbelievable Brutality Unleashed on Kids in For-Profit Prisons

Privatization of the youth prison industry handed soaring profits to GEO, but a history of brutal injustice to its incarcerated youth and their families.

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The Walnut Grove story is a cautionary tale that raises alarming questions about the treatment of youthful, mostly nonviolent offenders in Mississippi and elsewhere. And it calls into question the wisdom of turning over the care of these youths, some as young as 13, to private companies that exist solely to turn a profit – companies that have no incentive to rehabilitate youths, that thrive on recidivism, and that increase their profits by cutting corners and reaping ever more troubled souls into their walls. 

Walnut Grove
The Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Miss., was known for a culture of violence and corruption.

‘Deliberate Indifference’

On March 26, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves issued a blistering court order approving the settlement of the lawsuit. He wrote that the GEO Group Inc., the company that runs Walnut Grove, “has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.”

Violence by youths and guards wasn’t the only problem. Neither were the gang affiliations of some guards. Or the grossly inadequate medical and mental health care. Or the proliferation of drugs and other contraband. Or the lack of educational and rehabilitative programs. Or the wild overuse of pepper spray on passive youths.

Indeed, the DOJ found that sexual abuse – including brutal youth-on-youth rapes and “brazen” sexual misconduct by prison staffers who coerced youths – was “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”

What’s more, both the prison staff and the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which pays GEO $14 million each year to run the prison, showed “deliberate indifference” to these problems.

In other words, nobody cared. Nobody cared that the bottom line – private profit, secured in part by dangerously understaffing the prison – was more important than providing humane conditions and services that would protect youths from violence and help get them back on the right track.

They should care – if not out of basic human decency then because these young men will eventually get out of prison. They will re-enter their communities, many lacking an education, many lacking treatment for their disabilities, many severely scarred both physically and psychologically by their experience.

GEO Riding Privatization Wave

Mike was three weeks shy of his 20th birthday when he arrived at Walnut Grove to serve a four-year sentence in October 2009. After growing up with his mother in California, he had been living for the previous two years with his father in Hazlehurst, a small town about a half hour’s drive south of Jackson. He was an active, athletic kid who liked to fish and was good with his hands. He had begun studying at a local community college, hoping to become a welder.

But now, after running afoul of the law, he was just another number in prison garb, living in a facility that housed young men ages 13 to 22 who had been tried and convicted as adults.

In August 2010, six months after Mike was injured, GEO purchased the company, Cornell Companies Inc., that had been operating the prison since 2003. GEO, which was born as Wackenhut Corrections Corp. in 1984, is the second-largest prison company in America, with 66,000 beds at 65 prison facilities across the U.S. and another seven overseas. With a total of 4,000 beds in three prisons, including Walnut Grove, the company houses about a quarter of Mississippi’s prison population.

Built with $41 million in taxpayer subsidies, Walnut Grove has generated about $100 million in revenue for the companies operating it since the doors opened in 2001.