Two years ago, Mike McIntosh suffered brain damage as well as stab wounds, a broken nose, and other injuries when he was beaten nearly to death during a melee at a prison in Mississippi. A dozen others were hospitalized.

The fight, which the Justice Department says a guard at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility “endorsed,” was just the tip of an ugly iceberg that has now been exposed.

What happened to McIntosh, who was 20 at the time and serving a four-year sentence for a nonviolent offense, was symptomatic of a youth prison — one run for profit by the nation’s second-largest prison corporation — that was completely out of control.

A federal investigation and a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) uncovered what U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves called in a March 26 court order a “cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions” that had been allowed to fester under the management of GEO Group Inc.

(watchingfrogsboil / Flickr)

(watchingfrogsboil / Flickr)

The story of Walnut Grove is a cautionary tale that calls into question the wisdom of turning over prisoners, some as young as 13, to private companies that exist solely to turn a profit. These companies have no incentive to rehabilitate offenders. Instead, they thrive on recidivism and increase their profits by cutting corners and reaping ever more troubled souls into their walls.

At Walnut Grove, rampant violence by both youths and guards wasn’t the only problem. There were the gang affiliations of some guards. And the grossly inadequate medical and mental health care. And the proliferation of drugs and other contraband. Plus the lack of educational and rehabilitative programs. There was the wild overuse of pepper spray on passive youths, among many other problems.

Indeed, the Justice Department found that sexual abuse — including brutal youth-on-youth rapes and “brazen” sexual misconduct by prison staffers who coerced youths — was “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”

What’s more, both the prison staff and the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which paid GEO $14 million each year to run the prison, showed “deliberate indifference.”

In other words, nobody cared. Nobody cared that the bottom line — private profit, secured in part by dangerously understaffing the prison — was more important than providing humane conditions and services that would protect youths from violence and help get them back on the right track.

They should care — if not out of basic human decency then because these young men will eventually get out of prison. They will re-enter their communities, many lacking an education, many lacking treatment for their disabilities, many severely scarred by their experiences.

After Judge Reeves approved a sweeping court order to clean up the “cesspool” at Walnut Grove, GEO decided to end its management of another prison in Mississippi. The state then revoked its remaining contracts and will seek another company to run the three prisons GEO currently operates.

But questions remain. Will the future of private prisons elsewhere be affected by the abuses uncovered at Walnut Grove — many of which were blamed on severe understaffing, inadequate training, a lack of accountability, and other shortcomings that appear related to profits?

Private prisons today hold 8 percent of the 1.6 million people incarcerated in the United States. This population grew by 80 percent between 1999 and 2010, as states and the federal government bought the industry’s increasingly dubious pitch that it could save taxpayer money by operating prisons at a lower cost, according a report released in January by The Sentencing Project.

Michael McIntosh, who became an activist on the issue after his son Mike was brutally attacked, believes the evidence is sufficient to show that the profit motive isn’t compatible with prisons. “I think it’s terrible,” he said. “Our children’s lives shouldn’t be at risk because corporations cut corners in order to increase their profits.”

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Booth Gunter

Booth Gunter is a writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. You can read a longer version of this report on the SPLC's website.
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