Analysis: Glare again cast on Miss. corrections

By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press

The fallout from a federal lawsuit and a U.S. Justice Department probe of a Mississippi lockup for youths should come swiftly in the form of legislative hearings, but it remains to be seen if any action will be taken.

It’s not as if state officials don’t have a sort of roadmap for how to address the alleged corruption at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. The allegations come seven years after the U.S. Justice Department sued the state over its treatment of teen offenders housed at training schools.

The state eventually acknowledged wrongdoing in that earlier case and entered into a consent decree to make changes at Oakley Training School and Columbia Training School. Those changes resulted in Columbia’s closure, and a reduced inmate population at Oakley, which now only houses the most violent offenders.

It could be argued the claims against Walnut Grove are particularly disturbing because some legislators had held it up as a model for how youth detention centers should be run.

Opened in 2001, the facility was to offer inmates, aged 13 to 22, general education development, brick masonry, adult basic education and job skills training. The lawsuit filed last week by the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union and Rob McDuff, a Jackson attorney, contends most of the 1,200 inmates at the lockup aren’t even getting basic education.

The 376,000-square-foot facility in Leake County is overseen by the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, a group appointed by the town. The authority has a contract with the state to house the inmates. The authority then contracts with GEO Group, Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla.-based private prison company, to operate the prison.

Both the authority and GEO Group are named as defendants in the lawsuit, as well as Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham. The lawsuit centers on allegations of inmate abuse fueled by staff shortages and lax oversight. The same kind of environment was described in the training school probe.

House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Earle Banks, D-Jackson, said he wants to hold hearings on the allegations as soon as possible. Banks said holiday schedules may push his committee’s hearings into the first couple of weeks of the 2011 Legislature that starts in January. He said that will still give lawmakers time to draft proposals to be considered during the session.

Banks said he wants to hear from parents of inmates, the operators of the facility, former inmates and former staff. But he said he already has some ideas for proposals geared toward rectifying the situation.

For example, Banks wants to strengthen state laws pertaining to the notification of parents when an inmate has been hurt at a corrections facility. During a news conference in Jackson last week, one inmate’s father said he didn’t know the location of his son for two weeks after the youth was severely attacked.

Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said he’s also concerned about the allegations raised in the lawsuit.

“Certainly, these allegations need to be investigated, which will occur during the course of the lawsuit,” Tollison said. “If it is determined that the Legislature needs to make changes regarding the operation of Walnut Grove, then we should do so.”

Tollison said juvenile justice laws were changed after the training schools lawsuit to place an emphasis on community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders rather that institutional incarceration.

Some of the most significant changes, however, didn’t come about until after the state entered into its 2005 consent decree.

While other lawmakers may want to wait to see how the case unfolds — through the courts and the federal probe — Banks wants to move forward on legislation.

“Whatever the Justice Department does is appreciated, but I am a state lawmaker dealing with state issues in Mississippi,” said Banks. “Every day it goes without being handled, that means more kids have to go with this type of alleged treatment.”