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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 settlement requires the state to remove all boys under the age of 18 and certain teens who are 18 and 19 from the prison and house them in separate facilities governed by juvenile justice, rather than adult, standards. In his March 26 order, the judge wrote that the evidence in the case, along with the DOJ’s findings, left him with the “unshakeable conviction” that the settlement agreement must be entered immediately.

“Those youth, some of whom are mere children, are at risk every minute, every hour, every day,” the judge wrote. “Nothing has curtailed actions of the staff and indifference of management officials to the constant violations, even though the parties and their experts have been monitoring, investigating and conducting on-site visits constantly since before the lawsuit was filed and during the pendency of this action.”

As a result of the agreement, pepper spray will no longer be used to punish youths and can be deployed only to prevent serious bodily injury. Guards won’t be allowed to rely on inmates to enforce rules or impose punishment on others. Youths will not be subject to solitary confinement. Physical exertion used to inflict pain or discomfort won’t be allowed. Regular rehabilitative, educational and recreational programs will be available. Mental health and medical care will be required. And, “at all times,” youths will be provided with “reasonably safe living conditions and will be protected from violence” and sexual abuse.

“This represents a sea change in the way the Mississippi Department of Corrections will treat children in its custody,” said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “As a result of this litigation, Mississippi’s children will no longer languish in an abusive, privately operated prison that profits each time a young man is tried as an adult and ends up behind bars.”

Soon, the Department of Corrections will be seeking another company to run the three prisons currently in GEO’s hands. A month after the Walnut Grove settlement, the company announced it was discontinuing its $21 million contract to operate the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, perhaps in anticipation of another SPLC lawsuit. GEO said in a press release that the facility had been “financially underperforming.” Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps then revoked GEO’s remaining contracts, saying the state would seek another company to manage all three prisons.

But questions remain. Will the future of private prisons elsewhere be affected by the abuses uncovered at Walnut Grove – many of which were blamed on severe understaffing, a lack of accountability and other shortcomings that appear related to profits? Will states rethink the idea of trying children as adults and housing them with older prisoners?

In its report “Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America,” The Sentencing Project questions the private prison industry’s claim that it can safely and humanely operate prisons for less money than the government. Prisons run by the government are not exactly extravagant, so where do the savings – and profits – come from?

“[P]rivate prisons must make cuts in important high-cost areas such as staffing, training and programming to create savings,” the report says.

Walnut Grove seems to be a case in point.

“Deliberately indifferent.” It’s a phrase used throughout the DOJ report to describe the mindset of both the staff at Walnut Grove and the prison officials who were supposed to ensure constitutional conditions there. 

McIntosh believes the evidence is sufficient to show that the profit motive isn’t a good fit for prisons.

“I think it’s terrible,” he said. “Our children’s lives shouldn’t be at risk because corporations cut corners in order to increase their profits.