Jody Owens, the managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, hopes that the state will reinvest money saved from closing Walnut Grove in other services for individuals like job programs. Trip Burns/File Photo
JACKSON An attorney for the organization that helped get juveniles out of the Walnut Grove prison is happy that it is closing, and wants the State of Mississippi to invest in smarter and more equitable responses to crime.
"One of the reasons we're last in so many categories that matter is because we've invested in the wrong things," Jody Owens, managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Jackson Free Press.
"Mississippi doesn't have more people committing crimes per capita than any other state, but we punish people more severely and more unjustly and disproportionately, and as a result, our prison population grew exponentially over certain decades, and now we're finally realizing the need—the urgent need—to reverse that trend."
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the initial lawsuit on behalf of "C.B." and all those "similarly situated"—youth aged 13 to 22 who were tried and convicted in the adult criminal-justice system, the majority of whom had committed non-violent offenses, the 2010 complaint stated. As part of the 2012 settlement agreement in the case, the state removed youth from Walnut Grove, and they are no longer allowed to be housed in a private prison in the state. A court monitor continues to visit Walnut Grove, and the court monitor filed the latest report in May.
Walnut Grove has been the subject of a Department of Justice investigation and is still under a consent decree, including monitor reporting. The facility has also been involved with a lawsuit since 2010.
The lawsuit does not dissolve just because the facility is set to close in September, though. "Closing that facility is not enough to extinguish the rights of a class action lawsuit, so the parties will have to reach an agreement on what that looks like, but this lawsuit is not over," Owens said.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections cited budget constraints and shrinking prison population when announcing its plans to close the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility by September.
"MDOC's budget is lower than what we anticipated," Commissioner Marshall Fisher said in a press release. "Pursuant to an intensive budget review and evaluation, we have determined this is the most prudent action. We have the space in our state-run prisons to house the 900 inmates at Walnut Grove."
The most recent daily inmate population count shows that Walnut Grove was barely over 60-percent capacity. There were 922 inmates in the facility as of May 31, but the facility can hold 1,500.
All of the state's other private prisons have vacancies, May daily inmate population numbers show. Owens said Walnut Grove likely could have closed sooner and hopes that the state will reinvest some of the money used at the facility in services for the individuals previously housed there.
"It's really our hope that the state would use this opportunity to reinvest some of the money they were spending on Walnut Grove in services to develop job programs or drug-abuse programs and to really empower people," Owens said.
The Management & Training Corporation, which manages three other private prisons in the state (Marshall County Correctional Facility, East Mississippi Correctional Facility and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility), runs Walnut Grove.
"We look forward to continuing to work with MTC," Fisher said in a press release. "Ending our contract for Walnut Grove is about being fiscally responsible."
MTC has managed Walnut Grove, which opened in March 2001, since 2012. The current contract cost is $14.6 million annually.
"We are disappointed by the news but also understand the state must do what's in the best interest of the taxpayers," MTC Senior Vice President of Corrections Bernie Warner said in a statement. "Our hearts go out to the excellent staff at the facility. We have some of the best corrections professionals in the business at the facility, and we know this will be very difficult for them. We will do our best to help make the transition as smooth as possible."
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @arielle_dreher. Read more about crime and violence prevention at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.