“The Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility was hell,” recalled Ross Walton, a 25-year-old former inmate.
The private prison is the target of a federal investigation.
The U.S. Department of Justice informed Gov. Haley Barbour late last year that it had begun an investigation into the treatment of juveniles at the prison.
In November, he Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and Jackson lawyer Robert McDuff filed at lawsuit against Florida-based the GEO Group on behalf of 13 youthful offenders at the Leake County prison. It alleges young offenders at the 1,200-inmate prison are being forced to live in “barbaric, unconstitutional conditions.”
Other defendants in the lawsuit are state Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, which was created by the city to oversee the facility, and others.
Walton told state lawmakers today of being beaten by guards and seeing other inmates being beaten. “I’ve witnessed guards beat inmates over drug money,” he said.
He said he’s seen the staff bring drugs to the facility, including marijuana, cocaine and pills.
Prices at the prison canteen are hugely inflated, he said. The price of a bar of Irish Spring? $2. The price of a tube of Colgate? $5.
“A lot of times, it caused fights,” he said. “It’s hard to continue paying off the lawyer and have to send off money to your children.”
Shannon Busby and her husband told the committee that the same Ramen soup that cost 15 cents at Walmart is $4.60 in the canteen.
She told the committee about the experiences of her son, Kenneth Page, at the prison.
“He wants to be be somebody,” she said. “He wants to change his past.”
They are unable to send him a Bible, she said. The only Bible he can get they must order from the prison’s website.
The same website allowed them to buy him a Christmas dinner for $100, she said. “We didn’t do it because we couldn’t afford it.”
“One dinner?” a lawmaker asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
Walton already had a high school degree, but he said he saw other young offenders denied an education.
George Cole, who served as principal at Walnut Grove between 2005 and 2009, said many of the students were bright, scoring as high as 33 on an ACT test.
But unfortunately the prison had so many lockdown days, the school was never able to meet the 180 days required for certification, he said.
He wound up being disappointed and quit, he said. “I thought they would really be interested in rehabilitation.”
Walton is now getting an accounting degree in Jackson State University.
“Being labeled as a convicted felon I’m still being punished,” he said. “Not only did I deal with abuse, I’ve had employers tell me they don’t want to work with convicted felons.”
Michael McIntosh Sr. said his son, Michael Jr., was beaten so severely at Walnut Grove that he suffered permanent brain damage.
Tom Burnham, superintendent of the state Department of Education, testified he was bothered by what he had heard about education at the facility.
He said when he was researching a dissertation at the State Penitentiary at Parchman in the 1980s he saw a series of lockdowns that delayed the inmates’ education. “We’re now in 2010, and obviously some of the things that were going on then are still going on,” he said.