After years of widespread violence and sexual abuse at Mississippi's for-profit prison for juvenile offenders, state officials and civil rights groups signed a federal court decree in March aimed at overhauling a facility described by a federal judge as "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts."
U.S. Justice Department investigators found that both state officials and the GEO Group Inc., the nation's second-largest operator of private prisons, had essentially ignored the safety of youth prisoners, denying them basic health care and employing guards with known gang affiliations. Sexual misconduct between staff and inmates at the Walnut Grove youth prison was "among the worst we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation," the Justice Department's investigation concluded.
Yet two months after a federal court settlement, violence and poor staffing have persisted, including a fight that resulted in a young man being stabbed in the eye, according to recent court transcripts. In response, a top Mississippi state prison official recently testified that the state has no authority to force the GEO Group to improve security at the chronically understaffed facility, raising questions about the lines of authority for corrections policy in Mississippi.
"All we can do is make a request," said Emmitt Sparkman, deputy commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, in federal court testimony two weeks ago. He added that the GEO Group was "under no obligation" to increase staffing under the terms of its contract with the state.
Though a federal judge found that state officials "repeatedly failed to monitor the contracts with GEO," Mississippi plans to replace GEO with Management & Training Corp., a private company responsible for one of the most tragic prison breaks in recent memory.
The GEO Group, which has donated more than $56,000 to Mississippi elected officials over the past decade, did not respond to questions about its contracts in the state. A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections declined to make officials available for comment. GEO Group has operated Walnut Grove since 2010, after acquiring the prison in a merger with another prison corporation, Cornell Companies Inc.
In July 2010, three convicted murderers escaped from a prison run by Management & Training Corp. in Kingman, Ariz., after cutting a hole through the fence.
Subsequent investigations by the Arizona Department of Corrections found that perimeter alarms at the Kingman prison had long been dysfunctional. Guards had become "conditioned" to constant false alarms, and the company hadn't performed maintenance on the system for more than a year, according to a state report first obtained by the Arizona Republic.
More than two hours went by before Management & Training alerted the local sheriff's office. One of the inmates was arrested in Colorado two days later. It took more than two weeks for authorities to apprehend the other two escapees, following a nationwide manhunt. Two of the inmates were later charged in connection with the carjacking and murders of a husband and wife from Oklahoma who were driving through New Mexico.
Even five months after the escapes, the Arizona Department of Corrections sent Management & Training a letter about the company's slow progress in training its staff for emergencies, such as escapes or riots. The department director, Charles Ryan, wrote, "I retain serious concerns about myriad chronic operational deficiencies, as well as discrepancies between what you report as having been accomplished compared with what my staff is observing."
Among many problems noted in the letter, Ryan pointed out "a pattern of unacceptable inmate behavior," where large groups of inmates refused to listen to correctional officers and chased them away on several occasions.
Management & Training spokesman Issa Arnita said the company has worked with the state of Arizona to make the proper upgrades since the incident. "We took responsibility for what happened there, and that was a couple of years ago," Arnita said. "We've moved forward. That's the important thing."
Those who have worked on the Walnut Grove case in Mississippi have questioned why the state is choosing to outsource management to a private contractor again, given the state's past problems with oversight.
"Our position is that the state has substituted one bad actor for another," said Jody Owens, a managing attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who leads juvenile justice efforts in Mississippi. "The results are almost guaranteed to be the same, where they are putting the lives of people in their custody at risk. Private prisons have an inherent profit motive to not run facilities in a matter that's safe for the people there, and to shortcut staff and medical and mental health services whenever possible."
Arnita, the Management & Training spokesman, argued that violent incidents happen in any prison, public or private.
"It's the nature of the business," Arnita said. "It's a correctional facility. You'll sometimes have inmates who will do their very darndest to cause problems, and so you try to deal with it the best way you can."
Management & Training will take over the troubled Walnut Grove facility on July 2, and two other GEO facilities by mid-August. Under the federal court settlement, youth at Walnut Grove who are 17 or under, plus some high-risk 18- and 19-year-olds, must be moved to a separate state-run facility by the end of the year.
Arnita said the company will be bringing in a new management team, including wardens and deputy wardens. He said the company anticipates retaining many of the correctional officers now working for GEO Group.
It's unclear whether the new contract for Walnut Grove and other Mississippi state prisons will have specific staffing requirements. According to a court transcript, documentation from Walnut Grove showed that "only on rare occasions are all housing zones in the pods fully staffed."
Sparkman, the deputy corrections commissioner in Mississippi, testified last month in federal court that the department's current contracts don't require certain levels of staffing. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, who has been overseeing the Walnut Grove case, asked Sparkman what incentives the GEO Group had to ensure that inmates are properly supervised.
"It's just standard terms of the agreement that they're to provide a safe facility," Sparkman testified. "Specific staffing requirements -- no, sir, there's not any in the agreement that we have right now."
He went on to testify that the department intended to include staffing requirements and financial penalties in the new contract. A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Tara Booth, declined to respond to any questions until the final contract with Management & Training has been signed.
Owens, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, said Mississippi must take a harder line on oversight for anything to change with a new private operator.
"The state takes the position that their hands are tied, that it's under the control of the private prison provider, and that's just not true," Owens said. "You can't just have an agreement with somebody and say, 'OK, well, they're not doing what they're supposed to do.' If somebody doesn't pay their rent, you kick them out."