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
The Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Leake County closed today after years of allegations of sexual abuse, illicit drugs and physical abuse of inmates by correctional officers, which eventually led to the removal of youth from the facility. The closing comes in the wake of the federal government’s announcement that it is pulling back from using private prisons.
The Management and Training Corporation runs Walnut Grove, one of the state’s four private prisons, and will continue to operate the other three that hold prisoners in MDOC's custody. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued over conditions at Walnut Grove in 2010. The prison then housed minors who were convicted of adult crimes.
“Some prison staff exploit youth by selling drugs inside the facility,” the 2010 complaint read. “Other staff members abuse their power by engaging in sexual relationships with youth in their care. Many youth have suffered physical injuries, some serious and some permanent.”
The lawsuit led to a 2012 consent decree that established specific protocols for caring for youth inside Walnut Grove, and ultimately let to the removal of all youth from the facility. The State had removed “Close Custody” inmates, who needed armed or close supervision, from the facility by the end of 2014, court monitor reports show.
In June 2016, MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher announced that Walnut Grove would close due to “budget constraints and the prison population.” In early August, 720 inmates were still at Walnut Grove, 125 by Sept. 11, and today there are none.
Litigation with the facility is not ending just because the facility is closing, however.
Jody Owens, managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says that private prisons do not present a better alternative to state-run facilities.
“The concept is crime and punishment: you do the crime, you do the time,” Owens told the Jackson Free Press. “If not, you do the crime, you do time, and you come out worse than when you went in. That was not the goal—that was never the goal, and that’s what we continue to see in private facilities.”
Owens said Mississippi doesn’t need as many prisons here as people once thought, given the decline in the state’s prison population. He credited Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves with making wise decisions on criminal-justice reform in recent years.
“They’ve been able to examine our (inmate) population and realize that it wasn’t right-sized it was—purposely through bad laws in the books—oversized, and they have worked very diligently over the last three or four years (to fix it),” Owens said.
Owens said it is not outside the realm of possibility to close another facility in the next few years. He echoed what Commissioner Fisher told lawmakers earlier this month—that hopefully MDOC can use its current budget to invest in more programs to help rehabilitate and re-integrate inmates back into their community.
“I hope this is not just a savings for the state MDOC, but a better investment in the people coming out (of prisons),” Owens said.
The state will continue to pay off the bond on Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, the most costly private prison in the state. By 2028, the full bond for Walnut Grove ($153.98 million) should be paid off.
Clarification: This story has been updated to show that the Management and Training Corporation runs, not owns, the remaining three private prisons in the state that hold Mississippians. The other private prison (not run by the federal Bureau of Prisons) does not hold prisoners in MDOC's custody.
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected] Also see “Narrowing the Private vs. Public Prison Debate.”