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"A Picture of Such Horror as Should Be Unrealized Anywhere in the Civilized World"

Margaret Winter,
National Prison Project
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March 29, 2012

This week, a federal judge in Southern Mississippi gave new life to the words, "Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."

Judge Carleton Reeves — only the second African-American to serve on the federal bench in Mississippi's history — entered a blistering order giving final approval to a consent decree that bans the horrendous practice of subjecting kids convicted as adults to solitary confinement and requires the state to move such kids out of the brutally violent privately run prison where they are currently housed.

The consent decree settles a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of 1,200 Mississippi youth, ages 13 to 22, confined to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. That prison is operated by the GEO Group, the second-largest private prison operator in the world. The lawsuit detailed monstrous abuses by GEO staff — including peddling drugs to the teenagers in their custody and subjecting them to brutal beatings, sexual exploitation and solitary confinement.

On March 22, Judge Reeves heard searing testimony from six young African-American youth — the youngest only 15 — on the horrors to which they had been subjected in the Walnut Grove prison. The courtroom was packed with family members as well as Walnut Grove prison staff. Judge Reeves closely questioned the father of a young prisoner who had been so badly beaten that he suffers permanent brain damage; the boy's father described spending six weeks desperately trying to locate his son after prison officials moved the boy to a hospital and refused to tell his family what had happened to him.

Two days before the hearing, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report concluding that "brazen" staff sexual misconduct and brutal youth-on-youth rape at Walnut Grove was among the worst that DOJ had seen "in any facility anywhere in the nation."

In his scathing and powerful order, Judge Reeves found it "astonishing" that nothing had caused the defendants to change course. In fact, he wrote, "The testimony established that only two days before the hearing, the facility remained so understaffed that a teenage offender was brutally attacked." He also found that "the youth are routinely subjected to excessive force by prison officials and staff consistently fails to report and investigate these claims," which he found unsurprising, "given that the facility employs correctional staffers affiliated with gangs."

Judge Reeves wrote that the evidence left him "with the firm and unshakeable conviction that the Consent Decree must be entered WITHOUT DELAY. Those youth, some of whom are mere children, are at risk every minute, every hour, every day. Without Court intervention, they will continue to suffer unconstitutional harms, some of which are due to aberrant and criminal behavior. [Walnut Grove] has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate." (Emphasis his)

Furthermore, he wrote, state officials "have been derelict in their duties" to monitor GEO "and remain deliberately indifferent to the serious medical and mental health needs" of the youth at Walnut Grove. "The sum of these actions and inactions… paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world. Court intervention, as proposed by the parties, is undoubtedly necessary."

The groundbreaking decree approved by Judge Reeves requires the state to move all youth under the age of 18 — and all vulnerable youth under the age of 20 — out of the GEO-operated prison into a separate facility operated by the state, governed in accordance with juvenile rather than adult correctional standards; categorically prohibits solitary confinement of youth; and provides all prisoners with protection from staff violence and abuse.

In his remarks during the hearing, Judge Reeves assured the youthful plaintiffs and their families that he intends to vigorously monitor and enforce the decree.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly called the facility the Walnut Grove Correctional Center. The correct name is the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility.

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