NPR

Town Relies On Troubled Youth Prison For Profits

Families of youth incarcerated at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi listen to testimony at a hearing about alleged inmate abuse. (Phoebe Ferguson for NPR)

First in a two-part series on private prisons

Prisons are filled with stress and violence; without proper supervision they can revert to primitive places. That's what happened at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, an NPR news investigation has determined.

As the nation's largest juvenile prison, Walnut Grove houses 1,200 boys and young men in a sprawling one-story complex ringed by security fences about an hour's drive east of Jackson. The State of Mississippi pays a private corrections company to run the prison.

NPR's investigation found that allegations swirling around the prison raise the fundamental question of whether profits have distorted the mission of rehabilitating young inmates.

An Environment Of Violence

A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.
Justin Bowling, former inmate

Walnut Grove "started out and it was formed to be something good for youth, but somewhere down the line it took a turn for the worse," said former inmate Clayborne Henderson, 27. He spent two years for kidnapping in "the Grove," as they call it, between his 19th and 21st birthdays. Now he's working at a car wash and taking community college courses in Jackson, trying to straighten out his life.

He and other former inmates describe an environment of violence inside the youth prison as so pervasive it became entertainment.

"It'd be like setting up a fight deal like you would with two dogs," Henderson said. "I did witness twice while I was at Walnut Grove, they actually bet on it. It was payday for the guards."

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.

"When we began investigating conditions inside this facility and seeing how these kids were living with the beat downs and the sexual abuse and violence and corruption, it became a no-brainer. It became something we had to do," said Sheila Bedi, the lead attorney on the case and deputy legal director for the SPLC.

Earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice launched its own investigation into some of these charges. A spokesperson in Washington, D.C., said the probe is ongoing and declined to comment.

Questionable Prison Guards

Several former inmates who spoke to NPR say guards are a big part of the problem. Justin Bowling, who spent 17 months in the Grove in 2007 and 2008 for marijuana possession, says the prison is overrun with gangs, whose members include correctional officers.

"A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened," Bowling said.

There's also a problem of too few guards. A state audit in 2005 and another one last year noted that staffing at Walnut Grove decreased even as the prisoner population increased.

According to the audit, in 2009 there were three inmate injuries a day. In the first six months of 2010 there was more than one fight a day, an assault on staff at least every other day and nine attempted suicides.

The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, whose members represent youth facilities in all 50 states, reports that a guard-to-inmate ratio of 1 officer to 10 or 12 juvenile prisoners is common. The state audit of Walnut Grove found the guard-to-inmate ratio to be 1 to 60. Salaries are the largest expense of a correctional budget, and reducing staffing is typically a way to keep costs down.

Pablo Paez, vice president for corporate relations for GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla., declined repeated requests by NPR to give the company's side of the story. He cited the pending lawsuit. GEO, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is the nation's second largest prison corporation and had more than $1 billion in revenue last year.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also declined repeated requests for an interview, citing the litigation. In a brief email in January, he wrote, "If staff ... abused inmates they should be punished. However, I have no knowledge of them abusing inmates."

He added that the facility has improved since GEO took over last August. Two months later, his spokesperson confirmed in an email to NPR that the Department of Corrections had hired an independent consultant, experienced in fixing troubled lockups, to review operations at the Grove.

Ethel Heard is one of 100 parents who have banded together to pressure the state to make reforms at Walnut Grove. Her 21-year-old son, Tyrone, is serving time there for armed robbery.

"We know that our children have made mistakes," she said. "We're not asking that they open the cell doors and let our kids out. We're asking for them to have better treatment."

Creating A Distinct Youth Facility

When Walnut Grove opened 10 years ago it was a model youth facility. The idea was to get teenaged felons out of the notorious Parchman penitentiary and away from hardened criminals. As one young inmate said, "An old fool has lived his life, but a young fool can change."

But that's not how it has turned out, says state representative John Mayo, a member of the corrections committee that oversees Walnut Grove and other Mississippi prisons.

"To me, in my mind, it's just a prison," he said. "It's another adult prison."

Mayo says the Legislature kept raising the age of inmates sent there — from 18 all the way up to 22. He says he voted against the age increases.

Today, Walnut Grove is the only juvenile facility in the country that locks up 22-year-olds with 13-year-olds.

"Initially, it was to be 13- through 18-year-olds," Mayo said. "And then, quite frankly, that did not populate Walnut Grove to what I'm going to call a 'profitable operation.'"

Two years ago, Walnut Grove added 500 beds to accommodate all the new prisoners. According to the 2008 and 2009 annual reports for Cornell Companies, the prison operator at the time, the expansion created an extra $3.4 million in revenue. GEO acquired Cornell last year.

George Cole, a career educator who served as principal of the prison school for four years, was at a legislative hearing held in January to look into alleged abuses at Walnut Grove.

"I thought when I went to Walnut Grove I was going to a place that was really interested in the rehabilitation of our children, but I found out quite the opposite. And I guess as a private facility they had to make money," Cole testified.

The hearing was heavily attended by inmates' parents, most of whom are black, and all of whom wore bright orange T-shirts that read, "Friends & Family Of Youth Incarcerated At Walnut Grove." Though invited, neither GEO nor the state corrections department sent a representative to the hearing.

Taking Educational Grant Money

NPR examined thousands of pages of public records associated with federal grants paid to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. Records show that Warden Brick Tripp and his deputy wardens — already paid by GEO — have been receiving checks for $2,500 to $5,000 as "supplemental salaries" for administering federal Title 1 education funds.

"The warden and deputy warden had no dealings whatsoever with educating students," Cole stated emphatically in a phone interview.

The warden declined an interview request. Jeff Webb, the lawyer who represents the five-member Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, which writes the checks, says overseeing the grants is part of the warden's job, though he did not say why deputy wardens receive paycheck bonuses.

GEO Group's Paez was also asked why the prison administration was receiving supplementary paychecks from federal education grants, which have nothing to do with the civil rights lawsuit or Justice Department investigation. He said he had no comment.

NPR forwarded the paycheck supplements to the U.S. Department of Education and asked if this was normal. Chief of Communications Justin Hamilton said the agency is concerned and has referred the matter to its Office of Inspector General for investigation.

Support For Walnut Grove

Despite all the controversy, the youth prison has staunch defenders.

Dennise Jones-Putnam, municipal clerk of the town of Walnut Grove, says her nephew is in the prison boot camp program. "He will be one of the first ones to tell you that's the best thing that's ever happened to him. It's turned his life totally around," she said.

As to why the kids are frequently placed on lockdown and fight with staff?

"Walnut Grove is not a day care," said the Rev. Justin Chaney, the prison chaplain there from 2007 to 2010. "I'm afraid a lot of people think it might be just a little detention center. It's maximum security. So yea, you do have those that can be rough."

Grady Sims, mayor of Walnut Grove, says he visits the prison frequently and knows the staff well. "I wouldn't interfere with the way they're operating it," he said. "They've done an excellent job."

Why The Prison Matters To The Town

The town of Walnut Grove is so small there's no stoplight or supermarket. In fact, inmates outnumber citizens 2 to 1. The prison just about saved this town from extinction. The 200 prison jobs helped fill the void when a shirt manufacturer and a glove maker closed and moved overseas several years ago.

The mayor's own vending company has 18 snack machines inside the prison.

"It's been a sweet deal for Walnut Grove," Sims said. Indeed, every month, the prison pays the town $15,000 in lieu of taxes — which comprises nearly 15 percent of its annual budget.

"For a small town, that's a lot of money," the mayor said, "and it helps us maintain a full-time police department that we wouldn't be able to afford without that income."

There's more.

GEO pays the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority — which sends the prison all of its grant money — $4,500 a month. Webb, the authority's lawyer, says the money is kept in escrow and rarely spent.

Finally, there's a full-time state corrections employee whose job is to monitor how the prison is run. His salary is reimbursed by GEO.

All of this raises the question: Is oversight of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility negligent because it's a golden goose?

"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," says State Representative Earle Banks, chairman of the state Juvenile Justice Committee. He called the recent hearing to investigate Walnut Grove. Banks, a plaintiff's lawyer, is suing the prison for wrongful death of an inmate.

That hands-off policy might be about to change.

"If there's mistreatment going on at Walnut Grove and the Justice Department finds that it is, they ought to sue the hell out of somebody," Mayo said. "I can't understand why we have to be sued to do what's right."

Aarti Shahani contributed to this NPR News investigation and report.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that has helped make privately-run prisons a $3 billion industry. You'll find the nation's largest juvenile prison in a tiny Mississippi town, and it's become a golden goose for the community and for its private operator. But a scandal there is raising serious questions about whether profits have distorted the mission of rehabilitation.

A civil rights lawsuit alleges juvenile inmates are being held in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and the Justice Department is looking into it.

Here's NPR's John Burnett with the first of a two-part investigation.

JOHN BURNETT: The state of Mississippi pays a private corrections company to run the nation's largest juvenile prison. Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility houses 1,200 boys and young men in a sprawling one-story complex, ringed by security fences, about an hour's drive east of Jackson.

Prisons are places filled with stress and violence. Without proper supervision, they can revert to primitive places. Our investigation indicates that's what has happened at Walnut Grove.

Mr. CLAYBORNE HENDERSON (Former Inmate): Walnut Grove is like - it started out and it was formed to be something good for youth, but somewhere down the line it took a turn for the worst.

BURNETT: Clayborne Henderson is 27. He's working at a carwash and taking community college courses, trying to straighten his life out. He spent two years for kidnapping in the Grove, as they call it, between his 19th and 21st birthdays.

He and other former inmates, who were interviewed in a lawyer's office, describe an environment of violence inside the youth prison that was so pervasive, it became entertainment.

Mr. HENDERSON: It'd be like setting up a fight there like you would with two dogs. And sometimes that I did witness twice while I was at Walnut Grove they actually betted on it. It was payday for the guards and they actually betted on two fights.

BURNETT: 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, 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, and guards brutalizing inmates.

Sheila Bedi is the lead attorney on the case.

Ms. SHEILA BEDI (Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center): And when we began investigating conditions inside of this facility and seeing how these kids were living with the beat-downs and the sexual abuse and the violence and the corruption, it became a no-brainer. It became something that we had to do.

BURNETT: Earlier this year, the Justice Department Civil Rights Division launched its own investigation into some of the charges. A spokesperson in Washington said the probe is ongoing and she declined to comment.

Several former inmates who spoke to NPR say the guards are a big part of the problem. Justin Bowling spent 17 months in the Grove in 2007 and 2008 for marijuana possession. He says the prison is overrun with gangs, whose members include correctional officers.

Mr. JUSTIN BOWLING: A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.

BURNETT: There's also a problem of too few guards. A state audit in 2005 and another one last year, noted that staffing at Walnut Grove decreased even as the prisoner population increased. In prison, less supervision leads to more assaults.

The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, which represents youth facilities in all 50 states, reports that a ratio of one guard to 10 or 12 inmates is common. The audit of Walnut Grove found the guard-to-inmate ratio was 1-to-60. Salaries are the largest expense of a correctional budget, and reducing staffing is often a way to keep costs down.

GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida, declined repeated requests by NPR to give its side of the story; they cited the pending lawsuit. GEO is the nation's second largest prison corporation, with more than a billion dollars in revenue last year.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also declined repeated requests for an interview, citing the litigation. In a short email, he said the facility is improving under GEO's management and he has no knowledge of staff abusing inmates. Two months later, his spokesperson confirmed they've hired an independent consultant to review operations at the Grove.

Ms. ETHEL HEARD: We know that our children have made mistakes. You know, we know that. We're not asking that they open the cell doors and let our kids out. We're asking for them to have better treatment.

BURNETT: Ethel Heard is one of a hundred parents who've banded together to pressure the state to make reforms at the Walnut Grove. Her 21-year-old son, Tyrone, is serving time there for armed robbery.

When Walnut Grove opened 10 years ago it was a model youth facility. The idea was to get teenaged felons out of the notorious Parchman Penitentiary and away from hardened criminals. As one young inmate said, an old fool has lived his life, but a young fool can change.

But that's not how it's turned out, says State Representative John Mayo. He's a member of the corrections committee that oversees Walnut Grove.

State Representative JOHN MAYO (Mississippi): To me, in my mind, it's just a prison. It's just another adult prison.

BURNETT: Mayo says the legislature kept raising the age of inmates sent there from 18, now all the way up to 22. He voted against the age increases. Today, Walnut Grove is the only juvenile facility in the nation that locks up 22-year-olds with 13-year-olds.

Rep. MAYO: Initially, it was to be 13- to 18-year-olds. And then, quite frankly, that did not populate Walnut Grove to what I'm going to call a profitable operation.

BURNETT: Two years ago, Walnut Grove added 500 beds to accommodate all new prisoners. According to the 2008 and 2009 annual reports of Cornell Companies, the prison operator at the time, the expansion created an extra $3.4 million in revenue. GEO acquired Cornell last year.

George Cole, a career educator, served as principal of the prison school for four years. Here's his testimony at a legislative hearing called in January to look at alleged abuses at the prison.

Mr. GEORGE COLE (Educator): I thought when I went to Walnut Grove, I was going to go to a place that really was interested in the rehabilitation of our children but I found out quite the opposite. And I guess as a private facility, they had to make money.

BURNETT: NPR examined hundreds of pages of public records associated with federal grants paid to Walnut Grove. Records show that warden Brick Tripp(ph) and his deputy wardens, already paid by GEO, have been receiving checks for 2,500 to $5,000 as supplemental salaries for administering federal education funds. Yet, former principal George Cole, contacted at his home, said this.

Mr. COLE: The warden and deputy warden had no dealings whatsoever with educating students.

BURNETT: The warden declined an interview request. A lawyer representing the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, which writes the checks, says overseeing the grants is part of the warden's job, though he did not say why deputy wardens receive paycheck bonuses.

NPR forwarded the paycheck supplements to the U.S. Department of Education and asked for an explanation. Chief of communications Justin Hamilton said they're concerned.

Mr. JUSTIN HAMILTON (Department of Education): And we've referred this matter to the Department of Education's inspector general for investigation.

BURNETT: Despite all the controversy, the youth prison has staunch defenders. Denise Jones Putnam, the municipal clerk at the town of Walnut Grove, says her nephew is in the prison boot camp program.

Ms. DENISE JONES PUTNAM (Municipal Clerk, Walnut Grove): And he will be one of the first ones to tell you that's the best thing that's ever happened to him. It's turned his life totally around. What I think about the facility is, is it offers a place for these kids to be rehabilitated and put back into society.

BURNETT: As to why the kids are frequently placed on lockdown and fight with staff, Reverend Justin Chaney(ph) was chaplain at Walnut Grove from 2007 to 2010.

Reverend JUSTIN CHANEY: Walnut Grove is not a day care. I'm afraid that's what a lot of people kind of think it might be, is just a little detention center. It's maximum security. So, yeah, you do have those that can be rough.

BURNETT: The town of Walnut Grove is so small there's no stoplight or supermarket. Inmates outnumber citizens two to one. The youth prison has just about saved this town from extinction. The 200 prison jobs helped fill the void when a shirt manufacturer and a glove-maker closed and moved overseas several years ago.

Mayor GRADY SIMS (Walnut Grove): My name is Grady Sims, mayor of Walnut Grove. Been the mayor for about 30 years.

BURNETT: The mayor's own vending company has 18 snack machines inside the prison.

Mayor SIMS: It's been a sweet deal for Walnut Grove.

BURNETT: Every month, the prison pays the town $15,000 in lieu of taxes, which comprises nearly 15 percent of its annual budget.

Mayor SIMS: For a small town, that's a lot of money, you know. And it helps us maintain a fulltime police department that we wouldn't be able to afford without that income.

BURNETT: There's more - GEO pays the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, which sends the prison all of its grant money, $4,500 a month. The Authority's lawyer says the money is kept in escrow and rarely spent. Finally, there's a fulltime state corrections employee whose job is to monitor how the prison is run. His salary is reimbursed by GEO.

All of this raises the question, is oversight of the Walnut Grove youth correctional facility negligent because it's a golden goose? Here's what Representative Earle Banks, chairman of the state juvenile justice committee, had to say. He's the one who called the recent hearing to investigate Walnut Grove, he's also a plaintiffs' lawyer who's suing the prison for wrongful death of an inmate.

State Representative EARLE BANKS (Mississippi): All this community is just making so much money on Walnut Grove that no one wants to upset the apple cart. Then that means they're not going to make their money anymore.

BURNETT: That may be about to change. Again, Representative John Mayo.

Rep. MAYO: If there's mistreatment going on at Walnut Grove, and the Justice Department finds that it is, they ought to sue the hell out of somebody. I can't understand why we have to be sued to do what's right.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And on Monday's MORNING EDITION, you can hear the second half of John's investigation into the private prison industry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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