It is run by GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., the nation's second-largest for-profit prison corporation, which posted a profit of $284 million last year. The Mississippi Department of Corrections pays GEO to manage the prison.
NPR's investigation found that allegations swirling around the prison raise the fundamental question of whether profits have distorted the mission of rehabilitating young inmates.
Several former inmates who spoke to NPR say guards are a big part of the problem. Justin Bowling, who spent 17 months in the Grove in 2007 and 2008 for marijuana possession, says the prison is overrun with gangs, whose members include correctional officers.
"A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang," Bowling said. "If an inmate wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about some fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened."
Jonathan Smith is chief of special litigation in the civil rights section at the Justice Department, which spent two years looking into conditions at Walnut Grove.
Among the conditions described in the report released last month:
- Prison staff had sex with incarcerated youth, which investigators called "among the worst that we've seen in any facility anywhere in the nation."
- Poorly trained guards brutally beat youth and used excessive pepper spray as a first response.
- The prison showed "deliberate indifference" to prisoners possessing homemade knives, which were used in gang fights and inmate rapes.
Two years ago, Walnut Grove added 500 beds to accommodate all the new prisoners. According to the 2008 and 2009 annual reports for Cornell Companies, the prison operator at the time, the expansion created an extra $3.4 million in revenue. GEO acquired Cornell last year.
NPR examined thousands of pages of public records associated with federal grants paid to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. Records show that Warden Brick Tripp and his deputy wardens — already paid by GEO — have been receiving checks for $2,500 to $5,000 as "supplemental salaries" for administering federal Title 1 education funds.
The warden declined an interview request. Jeff Webb, the lawyer who represents the five-member Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, which writes the checks, says overseeing the grants is part of the warden's job, though he did not say why deputy wardens receive paycheck bonuses.
GEO Group's Paez was also asked why the prison administration was receiving supplementary paychecks from federal education grants, which have nothing to do with the civil rights lawsuit or Justice Department investigation. He said he had no comment.
What Is GEO Group?
Within the $3 billion private prison industry, GEO Group is the nation's second largest for-profit prison operator. GEO bought Cornell Companies, America's third largest private prison operation.
One of its prisons, which is the subject of an NPR News investigation, is now being investigated by the Department of Justice, and a civil rights lawsuit alleges that juvenile inmates are being held in "barbaric and unconstitutional conditions."
Are private prison corporations slave traders?
For the last two years, the number of inmates held in state prisons has declined slightly, largely because the states are short on money. Crime, of course, has declined dramatically in the last 20 years, but that has never dampened the states’ appetites for warehousing ever more Black and brown bodies, and the federal prison system is still growing. However, the Corrections Corporation of America believes the economic crisis has created an historic opportunity to become the landlord, as well as the manager, of a big chunk of the American prison gulag.
The attempted prison grab is also defensive in nature. If private companies can gain both ownership and management of enough prisons, they can set the prices without open-bid competition for prison services, creating a guaranteed cost-plus monopoly like that which exists between the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.If private companies are allowed to own the deeds to prisons, they are a big step closer to owning the people inside them. Many of the same politicians that created the system of mass Black incarceration over the past 40 years, would gladly hand over to private parties all responsibility for the human rights of inmates. The question of inmates' rights is hardly raised in the debate over prison privatization. This is a dialogue steeped in slavery and racial oppression. Just as the old slave markets were abolished, so must the Black American Gulag be dismantled – with no compensation to those who traffic in human beings.