A few days ago, I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR while I was driving in my car. Host John Burnett was talking about an investigation into Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. The prison facility for youthful offenders is being run by a private company called GEO Group. According to NPR, privatized prison services are a $3 billion dollar industry in this country—and GEO Group is our nation’s second largest for-profit prison operator.
From NPR: “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.”
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation into some of these charges earlier this year. NPR says its own investigation has raised “the fundamental question of whether profits have distorted the mission of rehabilitating young inmates.”
Walnut Grove, the nation’s largest juvenile prison, houses 1,200 boys and young men. It is the only facility that locks up thirteen-year-olds with 22-year-olds. The typical guard-to-inmate ratio is 1 officer to 10 or 12 juvenile prisoners. A state audit of the Walnut Grove facility showed a guard-to-inmate ratio of 1 to 60! Salaries for prison staff are reportedly the largest expenditure of a correctional budget. Evidently, cutting staff is a good way of cutting costs.
The inmates in the Walnut Grove facility outnumber the citizens of the small town by 2 to 1. The prison reportedly pays Walnut Grove $15,000 a month in lieu of taxes. The facility’s payments comprise nearly 15% of the town’s annual budget. The mayor said, “For a small town, that’s a lot of money and it helps us maintain a full-time police department that we wouldn’t be able to afford without that income.”
State Representative Earle Banks, chairman of Mississippi’s Juvenile Justice Committee, said, “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.” Banks, a plaintiff’s lawyer, called a recent hearing to investigate Walnut Grove. He is suing the prison for wrongful death of an inmate.
As John Burnett said, “All of this raises the question: Is oversight of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility negligent because it’s a golden goose?”
Note: There IS a full-time state corrections employee who has the job of monitoring how the prison is run. That employee’s salary is reimbursed by…GEO group.
Note: I believe NPR will broadcast the second part of this story on Monday, March 28th.