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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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With the acquisition of Walnut Grove and its other prison projects, GEO is riding a wave of privatization efforts.

Across the U.S., the number of inmates in such private facilities grew by 80 percent between 1999 and 2010 – from 71,208 to 128,195 – as states and the federal government bought the industry’s pitch that it could save taxpayer money by operating prisons at a lower cost, according a January 2012 report by The Sentencing Project. Thirty states now have partially privatized their prison systems.

For GEO, more privatization means greater profits. In 2011, the company produced $1.6 billion in revenue, a 27 percent increase over the previous year, and net income of $98.5 million, the best performance in the company’s history, according to its 2011 annual report.

The company’s business model depends, at least in part, on tough sentencing.

With 1.6 million people living behind bars, the U.S. already has the world’s largest population of prisoners – and the highest per-capita rate of incarceration. But the prison industry wants more. GEO’s annual report is clear about that – noting that “positive trends” in the industry may be “adversely impacted” by early release of inmates and changes to parole laws and sentencing guidelines.

Walnut Grove Population Triples

In the decade before Mike came to Walnut Grove, the prison’s population had soared – more than tripling from 2001 to 2010, from 350 to 1,200 inmates.

That was part of the problem. When the facility opened in 2001 with 500 beds, it was authorized to only accept “juvenile offenders” between the ages of 13 and 19.

There are important public policy reasons to keep children and teens separate from adult prisoners. The juvenile system was created to protect children from the harsh, punitive environment of adult prisons and to rehabilitate youths, recognizing that they are still developing and can greatly benefit from educational and other services.

Research has shown that youths who stay in the juvenile system are less likely to be arrested again than those who are transferred into the adult population. Further, youths are far more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons and are more likely to commit suicide.

Even so, the Mississippi legislature, under lobbying pressure, periodically raised the maximum age of those who could be housed at Walnut Grove – now at 22 –  while also steadily increasing its capacity.

The staffing levels, however didn’t keep pace with the rapidly growing population. In fact, a prison auditor reported to the legislature in 2005 – and again in 2010 – that staffing had actually decreased. When it acquired the facility in 2010, GEO did nothing to correct the imbalance. In fact, the SPLC lawsuit says GEO “has a policy … of understaffing the prison.” 

Michael McIntosh testifying
Michael McIntosh testifies before the Mississippi House Juvenile Justice Committee about the horrible conditions at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility.

Brutality the Norm

It was a brutal place. Mike told his father that he was locked in his cell for 23 hours  a day. He spoke of pervasive violence. “It didn’t seem like there was much being done to curtail anything going on,” McIntosh said.

Guards frequently doused young men with pepper spray as a first response, rather than a last resort. Youths were routinely sprayed simply for refusing verbal commands, such as failing to remove their arms from food tray slots while locked in their cells – something they sometimes did to get attention for medical emergencies. Most commonly used was the “Fox Fogger,” a chemical weapon that discharges as much spray as possible per burst. Some inmates described instances in which entire cans of pepper spray were emptied into a cell, after which guards locked the door with the inmate inside. Typically, youths were not given the opportunity to wash away the pepper spray or decontaminate their clothes or bedding.