Mississippi Prison Is Run By Violent Gangs With Guards' Help, Says Judge

06/12/2015 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

A Mississippi prison is run by violent gangs, creating an unconstitutional mess that the state must clean up, a judge ruled on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves said that gangs run amok inside Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, a prison in Walnut Grove, Mississippi.

That culture of unchecked violence creates an environment where riots can break out, as one did on July 10 last year.

During the riot, "inmates were brutally assaulted repeatedly with hands, feet, and objects including sticks, trays and a microwave," Reeves wrote in his decision. "Some of the attackers stood over their victims and urinated on them."

Reeves said that violence at the facility is underreported, and that prison guards often turn a blind eye to incidents. Some corrections officers, he said, abuse the inmates themselves.

The judge ruled that the Mississippi Department of Corrections, together with Management Training Corporation, the private prison company that runs the facility, must take steps to uphold the inmates' Eighth Amendment right to reasonable protection.

"With this federal court ruling, the Mississippi Department of Corrections must step up to its responsibility under the Constitution and protect the prisoners of Walnut Grove from violence,” Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a news release Thursday. “The department can no longer sit back and let a for-profit prison company neglect the prisoners’ safety on the state’s dime. We will make sure that this historic judgment is enforced, and we hope its impact will be felt not only at Walnut Grove but at prisons throughout the state.”

Reeves' decision is the result of a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and McDuff & Byrd, a Mississippi law firm.

The lawsuit comes after five years of litigation against Walnut Grove. In a statement sent to The Huffington Post, Management Training Corporation said it has worked with the state to reform several aspects of the prison. Among other changes, the company said, it has removed all youthful offenders and seriously mentally ill prisoners from the facility.

“The state has done everything the courts have asked,” wrote Odie Washington, senior vice president of corrections, in the statement. “In addition to meeting these significant requirements, MTC has also made numerous improvements to the facility since taking over in 2012 including reinforcing door locks, providing additional staff training, and offering more programs to help rehabilitate offenders."

Although Washington's statement mentions door locks, Reeves noted in his decision Thursday that cell security remains an issue at the prison.

"Despite the directive for staff to inspect doors on a frequent basis, at the hearing the Court received testimony that the locking mechanisms on cell doors are still readily defeated by inmates," Reeves wrote. "It is foreseeable that inmates will continue to unlock cell doors at their own liberty. Instructing guards to check doors each time they open and close is only a short-term and impracticable solution that does not rectify the problem."

Jim Norris, special assistant attorney general for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, declined to comment.

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