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One of America’s worst prisons is finally closing

Reuters/Joshua Lott
Not everyone feels good about saying goodbye.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, ranked one of the 10 worst prisons in America by Mother Jones, is finally closing its doors.

Following state budget cuts and a drop in inmate population, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has announced that that it will shut the privately run prison in September and transfer its 900 inmate to state-run prisons.

The Walnut Grove facility, which has 1,492 beds and costs the state $14.6 million each year, has a checkered history. A 2010 US Justice Department investigation into the prison, then operated by the Geo Group as a juvenile detention facility, found “systematic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.”

The report said that the prison authorities were “deliberately indifferent” to gang affiliations of prison staff, sexual abuse of prisoners by staff and fellow detainees, and the serious medical and mental health needs of the inmates. It also detailed the staff’s use of extreme force on prisoners as a first response, citing the excessive use of pepper spray, for instance.

In 2010, a former inmate spoke out about the alleged mistreatment of prisoners at the facility. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A 2010 class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) challenged the allegedly brutal and unconstitutional conditions at the prison, and ended with a federal court demanding sweeping changes at the prison.

The lawsuit detailed instances of the staff peddling drugs to prisoners and subjecting them to beatings and sexual abuse, and using solitary confinement as a form of punishment. In a scathing court order in 2012, federal judge Carleton Reeves said that prison authorities had “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate,” and that unless the state intervened, youth at the prison would continue to suffer unconstitutional harm. The testimony and investigation “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” he said.

Soon after, Geo Group was replaced by the Management and Training Corporation, a Utah-based company that operates 26 prisons across the US, including three others in Mississippi. But the Walnut Grove prison’s troubles were far from over. In 2014, riots left dozens of prisoners injured, prompting another lawsuit by the ACLU, SPLC, and other plaintiffs. And in June 2015, Reeves found that the horrifying conditions at the prison had persisted.

Officials in the town of Walnut Grove, Mississippi, worry about the impact the prison closure will have on the local economy. When it opened in 2001, the facility served as a much-needed source of employment, after a clothing company and a glove maker shut shop and moved their operations outside the country. The prison is the largest employer in the town, which is home to about 500 people—not counting prison inmates.

Mayor Brian Gomillion says the closure will be crippling for Walnut Grove, which stands to lose 200 jobs and $180,000 a year in revenue. “People in town who work there have talked with me, in tears,” he told The Clarion-Ledger, the local newspaper. Bernie Warner, the senior vice president of corrections at the company that operates the prison, tells Quartz that the company is disappointed in the decision but that the state must do what is in the “best interest of the taxpayers.”

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