The Unbelievable Brutality Unleashed on Kids in For-Profit Prisons

Privatization of the youth prison industry handed soaring profits to GEO, but a history of brutal injustice to its incarcerated youth and their families.
 Michael McIntosh couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had come to visit his son at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Miss., only to be turned away. His son wasn’t there.

“I said, ‘Well, where is he?’ They said, ‘We don’t know.’”

Thus began a search for his son Mike that lasted more than six weeks. Desperate for answers, he repeatedly called the prison and the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “I was running out of options. Nobody would give me an answer, from the warden all the way to the commissioner.”

Finally, a nurse at the prison gave him a clue: Check the area hospitals.

After more frantic phone calls, he found Mike in a hospital in Greenwood, hours away. He was shocked at what he saw. His son could barely move, let alone sit up. He couldn’t see or talk or use his right arm. “He’s got this baseball-size knot on the back of his head,” McIntosh said. “He’s got cuts all over him, bruises. He has stab wounds. The teeth in the front are broken. He’s scared out of his mind. He doesn’t have a clue where he’s at – or why.”

Though he had found his son, McIntosh still had no answers. He said prison officials wouldn’t allow him to see his son again for months. No one would tell him what happened – that is, until he received a phone call from a Southern Poverty Law Center advocate who was investigating Walnut Grove.

“When I was at my wit’s end and couldn’t get anywhere, an advocate from the SPLC actually found me,” McIntosh said. “She said, ‘Your son was in a riot.’ They [SPLC] just took bits [of information] and started putting this puzzle together. Without them, we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Mike suffered brain damage. A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report about the conditions at Walnut Grove later noted that after weeks of hospitalization, his “previously normal cognition resembled that of a two year old.”

In the dry language typical of such reports, the DOJ investigators wrote that on February 27, 2010, “a youth melee resulted in the stabbing of several youth, as well as other types of physical injuries necessitating treatment at an outside hospital. One of the injured youth … suffered irreparable brain damage and sustained a fractured nose, cuts and stab wounds.”

And no one bothered to tell his father.

Others were hurt, too – stabbed, punched, kicked, stomped and thrown from an upper floor to a lower one. Mike and his cellmate, who was stabbed in the head, were both nearly killed. A dozen others were hospitalized.

There was another shocking detail: A female guard had “endorsed the disturbance by allowing inmates into an authorized cell to fight,” according to the March 20, 2012, DOJ report. She was fired but not charged with any crime.

The guard’s involvement wasn’t uncommon. Investigations showed that guards frequently instigated or incited youth-on-youth violence. Often, they were the perpetrators.

What happened to Mike was symptomatic of a youth prison – one run for profit by a private corporation – that was completely out of control.

The initial investigation, which began in 2006, turned into a federal civil rights lawsuit, with the ACLU and Jackson-based civil rights attorney Robert McDuff as co-counsels. It was settled in March with a sweeping consent decree designed to end the barbaric, unconstitutional conditions and the rampant violations of state and federal law that were documented separately by both the SPLC and the DOJ.

The Walnut Grove story is a cautionary tale that raises alarming questions about the treatment of youthful, mostly nonviolent offenders in Mississippi and elsewhere. And it calls into question the wisdom of turning over the care of these youths, some as young as 13, to private companies that exist solely to turn a profit – companies that have no incentive to rehabilitate youths, that thrive on recidivism, and that increase their profits by cutting corners and reaping ever more troubled souls into their walls.


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