|Lauren Book took $50,000 from a group that allowed|
juveniles to be sexually abused
Miss. Prison Operator Out; Facility Called A 'Cesspool'
Updated April 30, 20128:06 PM ET
Published April 24, 20124:15 PM ET
One month after a federal court ordered sweeping changes at a troubled juvenile prison in rural Mississippi, the private company managing the prison is out. A report by the Justice Department describes "systemic, egregious and dangerous practices" at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility.
As those words imply, the official report is scathing.
Federal Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that the youth prison "has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk."
Walnut Grove, located an hour's drive east of Jackson, is a 1,450-bed prison that houses inmates ages 13 to 22 who are minors convicted as adults. 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.
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.
"To have a prison that's chaotic, poorly run, dangerous, didn't provide services, highly sexualized and highly violent really limits the ability of the state to turn those folks around, and to ensure public safety upon their release from prison," Smith said.
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.
- Some guards had gang affiliations — a finding confirmed to NPR last year by former inmate Justin Bowling.
- "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."
A GEO spokesman said via email that the abuses documented by the government occurred before GEO took over Walnut Grove in late 2010. Another private prison company, Cornell Companies, ran the Walnut Grove facility until Cornell was purchased by GEO.
GEO Group also ran the correctional center when the Walnut Grove mayor used one of the inmates as his personal sex toy:
JACKSON—William Grady Sims, 61, former mayor of Walnut Grove, Mississippi, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court to serve seven months in prison followed by six months of home confinement and two years of supervised release for federal witness tampering, U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis and FBI Special Agent in Charge Daniel McMullen announced. Sims pled guilty to the charge on February 14, 2012.
Sims was the mayor of the town of Walnut Grove, Mississippi, having been elected to this position since 1981. In this role, he was one of the longest continually serving mayors in Mississippi, having served over 30 years. In October 2009, Sims became the administrator or warden of the Walnut Grove Transition Center in Walnut Grove. At the time, the Transition Center was a privately-owned and operated facility which had contracted with the Mississippi Department of Corrections to house state inmates. In November 2009, the Sims rented a motel room in Carthage, Mississippi; drove a female inmate in his custody from the Walnut Grove Transition Center to the motel room; and proceeded to have sex with her. During a federal grand jury investigation of the sexual encounter, Sims was recorded during several telephone calls with the female inmate instructing the inmate to lie to investigators by saying they had never had sex and had never been together in that motel room. Sims was subsequently interviewed by the FBI, and he admitted to having sex with the female inmate and instructing her to lie to investigators about their sexual encounter. Sims resigned as administrator or warden of the Walnut Grove Transition Facility in January 2010.
GEO Group also ran a juvenile facility in Texas that was run about as well as a third world country.
The removal and firings came a week after two separate investigations into Coke: one by TYC investigators ordered by acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope after receiving a series of worrying reports, and a separate one by independent ombudsman Will Harrell. In his report, Harrell describes inhuman conditions. Insects infested the dorms, where children slept on mats on the floor, and sheets were visibly dirty. His worst criticism is reserved for the security dorm. Calling it "malodorous and dark," he notes that inmates were only let out to shower, with no exercise or recreation. Education was a crossword or math puzzle shoved through the slot in the door. Bad as these conditions were, three inmates had voluntarily self-referred themselves to the security dorm to avoid gangs. Threats of inmate-on-inmate violence caused the greatest "sense of fear and intimidation" Harrell had ever experienced. Understaffing, long seen as one of the pivotal problems with TYC, was still unresolved: 44 of the 105 staff positions were empty, and the facility was having trouble finding new recruits because of negative publicity about earlier scandals.
However, Harrell inspected the facility on Sept. 24, and while Hurley applauded his report's content, he was concerned that he did not receive a copy until after his office's own investigation was complete. "If I'm the ombudsman, and I'm out there, I'm not going to go away, write a report, and then not send it to the one person who can actually make changes."
According to Hurley, the most worrying fact is that the on-site quality-assurance monitors had given the facility a clean bill of health. In his report, Harrell singled them out for criticism, writing, "With so many Q/A's assigned to this single facility, more than my staff for the entire state, why do these problems persist?" While Coke was the only privately run secure facility, TYC has now launched a full investigation into all its contract services. "We thought we had good reports," Hurley said. "The people who were a part of this were longtime TYC employees, but at this point we have no confidence in reports we have seen."
An audit of the Texas facility found:
- “The GEO Group does not ensure that the youth are provided with a clean and orderly living environment.”
- “Cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine, and were in need of paint.”
- “[T]here are serious problems with insects throughout the facility and grounds.”
- “Plumbing chases were not secure at the time of the inspection. Contraband and pests were found in these areas.”
- “Water leaks are numerous throughout the facility, creating an unsanitary and unsafe environment for all youth and staff.”
- “There is racial segregation [in] the dorms; Hispanics are not allowed to be cell mates with African Americans.”
- “Youth sprayed with [Oleoresin Capsicum] pepper spray are not routinely decontaminated.”
- They have “not received church services in over two months.”
- They are “disciplined for speaking Spanish.”
- They “are sometimes not allowed to brush their teeth for days at a time.”
- They “had been forced to urinate or defecate in some container other than a toilet.”
GEO Group also hired Ron Book among their collection of lobbyists
With bipartisan criminal-justice reform ramping up, which could drastically cut overall inmate populations, logic might suggest that the private-prison industry would be on its heels. It’s not. Because what does any good business do when its customer base shrinks? It widens its net, of course.
While state and federal prison statistics show a recent decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars, there are still roughly 5 million people under correctional supervision. Many more are in rehab and mental-health hospitals, while hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are shuffled through detention centers – potentially big markets for private facilities. So the correctional industry is diversifying. “The scope of how big this is hasn’t even been anywhere near made clear,” says Caroline Isaacs, who closely tracks the private-prison industry for the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group that opposes corrections privatization.
Though the services may be evolving, the concerns remain much the same. As with many for-profit entities, the top priority is the bottom line, which is often at odds with the purpose of community corrections. Rehabilitation – whether in a prison or half-way house – is not typically in the operator’s best interest, because that means fewer clients. As such, some private prisons have been found cutting corners on training and dangerously understaffed, even leading to riots. And you may remember the kids-for-cash scandal, where two Pennsylvania judges received kickbacks for sentencing juveniles to time behind bars.
But there’s still money to be made. In October, Corrections Corporation of America – the largest proprietor of the for-profit bunch – purchased Avalon, adding to its growing network of halfway houses. GEO Group, the second largest in this field, several years ago purchased BI, an electronic monitoring company, and is now moving into health care. Such companies are even targeting contracts in the purely mental-health sector. Opponents have dubbed the latter the “treatment-industrial complex.” Around 90 percent of incarcarees are eventually released; however, mental health hospitals have the potential for lifetime confinement. The fear, some say, is that we’ll simply start funneling people from prisons to alternative care institutions and surveillance programs that will perpetuate many of the same issues — and, in some cases, be even more harmful to those who end up stuck in a vicious cycle.
As in any competition for government contracts, lobbying plays a role in the industry’s flexibility and resilience. Official, on-the-books lobbying numbers have gone down across the board over the decades, though CCA hired 199 lobbyists in 32 states over the past decade, while GEO employed 72 lobbyists in 17 states, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. But many believe that lobbying activity has simply gone underground. Lee Drutman, a lobbying expert with New America and professor at John Hopkins University, says to tell the story of a $3 billion industry fighting for legislative survival, you have to look at the indirect ways it lobbies, from unlikely alliances to innovative media strategies.
CCA Director of Public Affairs Jonathan Burns points out the company has a longstanding corporate policy not to lobby for or against any policy that would determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention. Plain speak: The corporations are not supposed to influence the length of sentences or what counts as an offense punishable by prison. GEO, meanwhile, noted in a statement that it doesn’t advocate for or against any specific criminal-justice policy. Still, federal lobbying disclosure statements show that over the past decade the industry has spent almost $10 million on state persuasion efforts and close to $22 million lobbying Senate and House representatives, and it has contributed more than $3 million directly to candidates and PACs. “With the election coming, 2016 should be a very interesting year,” says Paul Ashton, a research associate at the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., which aims to reduce incarceration.
Yes, $3 million in contributions to candidates like Lauren Book and PACs like Leadership for Broward. The Books lobby for stricter sentencing, which means more business for the Boca Baton-based GEO Group. Also, GEO Care, GEO Group's health subsidiary, donated an extra $15,000 in addition to the $50,000 donated to Leadership for Broward.
The bottom line is Lauren's alleged concerns on preventing sexual abuse does not extend to juveniles behind bars.