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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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When DOJ investigators asked about the use of pepper spray, some guards were less than forthcoming. One lieutenant told them he couldn’t recall the last time he had used it. A video taken by one of the prison’s many cameras told a different story, showing him wielding it a mere two weeks earlier.

Pepper spray wasn’t the only hazard.

Fights were common, occurring almost daily. Cell doors could be easily rigged to remain unlocked, allowing youths to leave their cells and enter others at will. Guards were often complicit in attacks. Weapons were readily available. Emergency call buttons in the cells didn’t work.

In addition, guards “frequently and brutally react to low-level aggression” – such as using profanities or reacting too slowly to an order – by “slamming youth head first into the ground, slapping, beating, and kicking youth,” the DOJ found. In one such incident, a youth said he was ordered out of his cell by a supervising guard, who then jumped him and kicked him in the back four times. Another guard stomped on his leg. Investigators later observed a bruise on his leg in the shape of a boot print.

“We also found that youth were assaulted for the way they allegedly looked at officers or for absolutely no given reason at all,” the DOJ report says.

Some guards apparently saw their charges as sexual prey. Sexual misconduct between staffers and youth occurred on a monthly basis – “at a minimum,” the DOJ found. But GEO did little or nothing to prevent it, other than firing those caught in the act – like the female guard who yelled “close the door” at another guard who saw her engaged in intercourse with a youth in a medical department restroom.

Between July 2009 and May 2010, 13 staffers were fired and two arrested for sexual misconduct. No one knows how many other incidents went undetected.

In addition, youths were “routinely” subject to sexual assaults by other youths, the result of “grossly inadequate staffing” in the facility’s living areas, the DOJ found. Some youths told horrific stories of rape or attempted rape by cellmates who beat them or wielded “shanks,” the prison term for knives fashioned from ordinary metal objects.

Shanks, the investigators discovered, were far too common – and often used in assaults. During one 11-month period ending in November 2010, 91 youths were transported to outside medical facilities for treatment of injuries due to inmate violence. Many had cuts and stab wounds.

One youth, who was referred to as J.D. in the lawsuit, was tied up, brutally raped and beaten over a 24-hour period by a cellmate who had been the subject of multiple prior complaints involving sexual misconduct. The victim tried to summon guards, but the emergency button in his cell didn’t work.

Medical Care Lacking

Nothing, perhaps, illustrates the inhumane, callous and unconstitutional treatment of the youths at Walnut Grove more than the provision – or lack thereof – of mental health and medical care.

New inmates were not properly screened when they arrived; in fact, the facility appeared to lack even the most basic equipment needed to check arrivals for common conditions such as asthma, kidney disease or urinary infections. Exam rooms did not even contain examination tables or chairs.

Youths who were sick or injured often had to make multiple requests to see a nurse and sometimes waited weeks for treatment. Many with chronic conditions were not always given their medicine on time, if at all. The administration of medication was “grossly deficient,” the DOJ found. And though some inmates were as young as 13, none of the physicians who provided care at Walnut Grove were trained in pediatrics or family medicine.