MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Here's NPR's John Burnett with the first of a two-part investigation.
JOHN BURNETT: Prisons are places filled with stress and violence. Without proper supervision, they can revert to primitive places. Our investigation indicates that's what has happened at Walnut Grove.
BLOCK: Walnut Grove is like - it started out and it was formed to be something good for youth, but somewhere down the line it took a turn for the worst.
BURNETT: He and other former inmates, who were interviewed in a lawyer's office, describe an environment of violence inside the youth prison that was so pervasive, it became entertainment.
BLOCK: It'd be like setting up a fight there like you would with two dogs. And sometimes that I did witness twice while I was at Walnut Grove they actually betted on it. It was payday for the guards and they actually betted on two fights.
BURNETT: Sheila Bedi is the lead attorney on the case.
BLOCK: And when we began investigating conditions inside of this facility and seeing how these kids were living with the beat-downs and the sexual abuse and the violence and the corruption, it became a no-brainer. It became something that we had to do.
BURNETT: Several former inmates who spoke to NPR say the guards are a big part of the problem. Justin Bowling spent 17 months in the Grove in 2007 and 2008 for marijuana possession. He says the prison is overrun with gangs, whose members include correctional officers.
BLOCK: A lot of times, the guards are in the same gang. If inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened.
BURNETT: Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps also declined repeated requests for an interview, citing the litigation. In a short email, he said the facility is improving under GEO's management and he has no knowledge of staff abusing inmates. Two months later, his spokesperson confirmed they've hired an independent consultant to review operations at the Grove.
BLOCK: We know that our children have made mistakes. You know, we know that. We're not asking that they open the cell doors and let our kids out. We're asking for them to have better treatment.
BURNETT: But that's not how it's turned out, says State Representative John Mayo. He's a member of the corrections committee that oversees Walnut Grove.
BLOCK: To me, in my mind, it's just a prison. It's just another adult prison.
BURNETT: Mayo says the legislature kept raising the age of inmates sent there from 18, now all the way up to 22. He voted against the age increases. Today, Walnut Grove is the only juvenile facility in the nation that locks up 22-year-olds with 13-year-olds.
SIEGEL: Initially, it was to be 13- to 18-year-olds. And then, quite frankly, that did not populate Walnut Grove to what I'm going to call a profitable operation.
BURNETT: George Cole, a career educator, served as principal of the prison school for four years. Here's his testimony at a legislative hearing called in January to look at alleged abuses at the prison.
BLOCK: I thought when I went to Walnut Grove, I was going to go to a place that really was interested in the rehabilitation of our children but I found out quite the opposite. And I guess as a private facility, they had to make money.
BURNETT: NPR examined hundreds of pages of public records associated with federal grants paid to Walnut Grove. Records show that warden Brick Tripp(ph) and his deputy wardens, already paid by GEO, have been receiving checks for 2,500 to $5,000 as supplemental salaries for administering federal education funds. Yet, former principal George Cole, contacted at his home, said this.
BLOCK: The warden and deputy warden had no dealings whatsoever with educating students.
BURNETT: NPR forwarded the paycheck supplements to the U.S. Department of Education and asked for an explanation. Chief of communications Justin Hamilton said they're concerned.
BLOCK: And we've referred this matter to the Department of Education's inspector general for investigation.
BURNETT: Despite all the controversy, the youth prison has staunch defenders. Denise Jones Putnam, the municipal clerk at the town of Walnut Grove, says her nephew is in the prison boot camp program.
BLOCK: And he will be one of the first ones to tell you that's the best thing that's ever happened to him. It's turned his life totally around. What I think about the facility is, is it offers a place for these kids to be rehabilitated and put back into society.
BURNETT: As to why the kids are frequently placed on lockdown and fight with staff, Reverend Justin Chaney(ph) was chaplain at Walnut Grove from 2007 to 2010.
SIEGEL: Walnut Grove is not a day care. I'm afraid that's what a lot of people kind of think it might be, is just a little detention center. It's maximum security. So, yeah, you do have those that can be rough.
BURNETT: The town of Walnut Grove is so small there's no stoplight or supermarket. Inmates outnumber citizens two to one. The youth prison has just about saved this town from extinction. The 200 prison jobs helped fill the void when a shirt manufacturer and a glove-maker closed and moved overseas several years ago.
BLOCK: My name is Grady Sims, mayor of Walnut Grove. Been the mayor for about 30 years.
BURNETT: The mayor's own vending company has 18 snack machines inside the prison.
BLOCK: It's been a sweet deal for Walnut Grove.
BURNETT: Every month, the prison pays the town $15,000 in lieu of taxes, which comprises nearly 15 percent of its annual budget.
BLOCK: For a small town, that's a lot of money, you know. And it helps us maintain a fulltime police department that we wouldn't be able to afford without that income.
BURNETT: All of this raises the question, is oversight of the Walnut Grove youth correctional facility negligent because it's a golden goose? Here's what Representative Earle Banks, chairman of the state juvenile justice committee, had to say. He's the one who called the recent hearing to investigate Walnut Grove, he's also a plaintiffs' lawyer who's suing the prison for wrongful death of an inmate.
BLOCK: All this community is just making so much money on Walnut Grove that no one wants to upset the apple cart. Then that means they're not going to make their money anymore.
BURNETT: That may be about to change. Again, Representative John Mayo.
SIEGEL: If there's mistreatment going on at Walnut Grove, and the Justice Department finds that it is, they ought to sue the hell out of somebody. I can't understand why we have to be sued to do what's right.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And on Monday's MORNING EDITION, you can hear the second half of John's investigation into the private prison industry.
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