JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi jumped enthusiastically into using private prisons in the mid-1990s, when the Department of Corrections was under a longstanding federal court order to ease crowding and improve conditions in penitentiaries.
The state went on a prison building spree and legislative leaders agreed with private-prison lobbyists, who pointed to government’s unimpressive record of prison management and said corporations might do more efficient job at a better price. Critics decried prisoners-for-profits as an unseemly business model, but the state moved ahead with private contracts for some of its facilities.
Mississippi wasn’t alone. Many other states, and the federal government, also farmed out prison management to private contractors the past couple of decades.
Now, the trend could be reversing itself.
The U.S. Justice Department announced last month that it will phase out the use of private prisons after the department’s own audit found more safety and security problems in privately managed facilities than in those run by the government.
Last week, Mississippi closed a private prison that had become notorious for inmate abuse, the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility.
“Good riddance to Walnut Grove, a cesspool sponsored by Mississippians’ tax dollars,” Jody Owens, a Jackson-based managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a news release Thursday.
The prison opened in 2001 as the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility and at some points, it held inmates aged 13 to 22 who were minors convicted as adults.
In November 2010, the SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union and Jackson attorney Robert McDuff filed a lawsuit alleging that some guards at the Walnut Grove youth prison were smuggling in drugs, assaulting or sexually abusing inmates and putting put some in solitary confinement. The suit also said inmates weren’t given proper medical care or educational opportunities.
Utah-based Management and Training Corp. took over management of the Walnut Grove prison in 2012 from Florida-based GEO Group. As the prison prepared to close last week, MTC spokesman Issa Arnita said that under the company’s management, “there have been tremendous improvements at that facility.”
The prison had been under federal court oversight since 2012, after a judge agreed there were abusive conditions. Juveniles were removed, but high assault rates and problems with supervision of inmates persisted until the state removed maximum-security prisoners.
During a 2015 federal court hearing, an inmate from the Walnut Grove prison testified that gang members beat each other up on a daily basis and that a health care worker had sexually assaulted him in while he was working in a prison infirmary.
Mississippi paid MTC $14.6 million a year to run the facility. State Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher announced the planned closure three months in advance, citing budget constraints and saying Mississippi’s other prisons had room to house the 900 inmates from Walnut Grove.
Owens, with SPLC, said the state needs to take tax dollars out of private prisons and put money into programs to prepare inmates to re-enter society.
Gabriel Eber, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, also hailed the closure of Walnut Grove.
“Less than a month after the Department of Justice announced the end of private prisons in the federal system, the industry is taking another well-deserved hit with the loss of Walnut Grove,” Eber said in a statement. “This prison’s operators sacrificed their prisoners’ safety, cutting back on staff and safety measures so severely that violence was rampant.”
The Mississippi Department of Corrections still has three privately run prisons.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
An AP news analysis