JACKSON, MS – The American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Jackson civil rights attorney Robert B. McDuff have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the for-profit operators of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF), charging that the children there are forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all the teenagers and young men in the facility.
Among the named defendants in the lawsuit are the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority and the Geo Group, Inc., which is the second-largest private prison company in the country. The facility houses youth between the ages of 13 and 22 who have been tried and convicted as adults, more than two-thirds of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
"Lawmakers deciding to send children as young as 13 into the adult criminal justice system is a symptom of our nation's addiction to mass incarceration," said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. "Studies show that young people diverted into the adult criminal justice system are far more likely to re-offend than those treated as juveniles. And it ratchets up the likelihood of bad outcomes when the law commits kids to prisons run by profit-driven corporations that skimp on basic supervision and services to squeeze out more profit, leading to the kinds of suicides, rapes and beatings that are commonplace at WGYCF."
The lawsuit describes a facility known for its culture of violence and corruption. Some prison staff exploit youth by selling drugs inside the facility or by entering into sexual relationships with them. Staff members savagely beat young prisoners who are handcuffed and defenseless, or spray them with chemicals when they are locked in their cells.
WGYCF, which opened in 2001, was constructed with over $41 million of taxpayer money. Since then, the Mississippi legislature has tripled the size of the facility, leading to significantly increased profits for Geo Group.
"The Mississippi legislature established WGYCF with the hope that the young men housed there would be provided a second chance," said Sheila Bedi, Deputy Legal Director of SPLC. "Unfortunately, private prison companies prioritized their profits over the well being of Mississippi's youth. As a result, the young men imprisoned in this facility endure unspeakable abuses at a tremendous cost to Mississippi's taxpayers."
According to the lawsuit, one young man was tied to his bunk for over 24 hours, brutally raped and sexually assaulted after prison staff failed to heed his pleas for protection. Other youth have suffered multiple stabbings and beatings, including one youth who will live with permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which prison staff were entirely complicit.
Michael McIntosh, the father of a young man who was incarcerated at the facility and a founder of Friends and Family of Youth Incarcerated at Walnut Grove, a coalition of individuals who advocate for the youth at WGYCF, said, "Because of the abuse my son suffered at WGYCF, he will live with permanent brain damage for the rest of his life."