By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
A riot was under way the night Tyler Edmonds began his three-year stay in hell.
Edmonds, now almost 22, was sentenced to life in prison in 2004 after an Oktibbeha County jury found him guilty in the shooting death of his stepsister’s husband.
“They walked me to my unit, and a riot was going on,” he recalled last week.
“Guys in khaki pants, black T-shirts, gas masks, cans of pepper spray and shotguns against some brawling inmates – it was a horrible shock.
“I went from hell to the deepest depths of hell.”
The West Point native breathes free air these days, after a new trial in 2008 set him free. His original trial drew national headlines because he was just 13 when he arrested for the crime.
“I wonder how I came out a decent person – I ask myself, how did I keep from losing my mind?” Edmonds said about the experience.
Today, Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, where he spent those torturous years, has drawn public attention with hundreds of petitions to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, alleging systematic brutality of its 22-and-under aged prisoners.
The petitions ask MDOC to cancel its contract with GEO Group Inc., the Florida-based company that runs the state’s only youth prison.
Walnut Grove, in central Mississippi southeast of Carthage, also is the object of a federal lawsuit on behalf of 13 of its 1,200 prisoners. And the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating treatment of juveniles there.
Walnut Grove officials have yet to respond to the lawsuit filed in the Southern District of U.S. District Court in Jackson.
Speaking during his lunch break at a Yuma, Ariz., auto dealership, Edmonds blamed poor staff training and structural instability for making a bad situation worse at Walnut Grove.
“There were problems there every day,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. People at Walnut Grove don’t want to be there. They’d rather be at Parchman.”
Edmonds said that’s because prisoners at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman can count on a regular system of sleep, meals, exercise and other activities.
That’s not what he found at Walnut Grove, where he said whatever happened depended on what the guards felt like.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and you have to be tougher or smarter than everybody else to stay safe.”
Edmonds, whose youthful appearance belies his years, said he fit into the “smarter” category but at times had to fight.
“I was a kid. I needed stability,” he recalled. “That kind of environment contributes to mental and emotional instability.
“It’s like putting a bear in a cage and poking it with a stick.”
During his time at Walnut Grove, Edmonds said the guards didn’t seem to know any other way to control prisoners except with violence.
“Fights are going to happen, but that doesn’t mean the prisoners aren’t people,” he noted. “The employees just aren’t trained to deal with it any other way.”
He said some guards belonged to the same gangs as some of the prisoners, and this created its own problems.
“I’m not surprised to hear of public complaints about Walnut Grove,” he said. “People haven’t been blind to what’s going on there, but they’ve just chosen not to see it.”
While held in the facility, Edmonds said prisoners couldn’t be certain of any kind of routine, and after entire zones were locked down because of small fights, the rest of the zone’s inmates would come out of lockdown ready to punish the ones who caused lockdown in the first place.
“I would just stand with my back against the wall, when that happened, and if you’re going to come close to me, you’re going to get hit,” he said. “It’s not that I wanted to – it was the only way to survive.”
Shut it or make it work
Walnut Grove prison opened in 1999, built for male inmates ages 13-22. It was owned by private individuals. In September 2003, a subsidiary of The GEO Group contracted to operate the maximum security institution. Offenders there have been convicted of a felony and sentenced as adults.
The public has been blind to what goes on there, Edmonds insisted, because of its rural location where few people go except for those who work there and families with relatives in the prison.
Edmonds said he hopes the state will shut down Walnut Grove or get another company to take it over – “someone who can make it work.”
He said a new administration should focus more on rehabilitation and education for the young prisoners.
“These people aren’t animals. Most of them aren’t going to be locked in cages forever,” he said. “Do you want them to get out and be your neighbor as more of a criminal or as someone who’s gotten a GED and worked on themselves?”
Three years and 1,657 miles away from Walnut Grove, Edmonds admits that while he’s physically in a happier place, he knows there’s plenty about Walnut Grove that he hasn’t dealt with emotionally.
Before he got a new trial and a not-guilty verdict, he said he thought he’d be in Walnut Grove forever.
“I don’t want to remember it, to think about it,” he added. “I’ll have to live it again, if I do.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.