JACKSON, Miss. -- The Justice Department says juveniles were subjected to sexual misconduct and other abuses at a privately run Mississippi prison, though the report comes three weeks after plans were revealed to move youth to another facility.The report dated Tuesday says sexual misconduct at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in south Mississippi "was among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation."
Walnut Grove which also houses adults is run by GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., the nation's second largest private prison company. A spokesman for GEO Group declined to comment Wednesday. The company assumed management of the facility in late 2010.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and Jackson attorney Robert McDuff sued the state over conditions at the facility in 2010. The suit, filed on behalf of 13 plaintiffs, claimed guards smuggled drugs to inmates, had sex with some of them and denied others medical treatment and basic educational services.
A proposed settlement reached in February requires youth to be moved to a facility governed by juvenile justice standards. State lawmakers have worked on legislation that would allow juveniles to be moved to a separated unit at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.
The lawsuit settlement would also ban the practice of housing youth in long-term isolation.
"The Department of Justice's groundbreaking investigation into the GEO-Group operated Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility confirms what Mississippi's communities have known for over a decade: the combination of a profit hungry private prison, and a bad law that allows too many teenagers to enter the adult justice system has created a public safety crisis in Mississippi," said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"This is a crisis that destroys young lives and has wasted over $100 million in taxpayer dollars. In the wake of this report, Mississippi lawmakers should examine the harm that private prisons inflict on our communities and take action to end the practice of trying children in the adult criminal justice system."
The Justice Department report listed numerous problems, including that the facility was "deliberately indifferent to staff sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with youth."
It also said the facility used excessive force, is indifferent to gang affiliations within the ranks of correctional staff and is indifferent to risks that young inmates posed to others.
"Youth also reported staff involvement with youth gang members and that, in fact, several staff members are actually members of various gangs and are involved in gang activity at the Facility. Surprisingly, a high ranking WGYCF official acknowledged to our DOJ investigative team that some of the Facility staff are involved in gangs," the report said.
The facility also didn't provide adequate mental health and failed to adequately assess and treat youth at risk of suicide, the report said.
Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility opened in 2001 in Leake County and holds inmates ages 13-22 who were minors convicted as adults.
A federal judge must approve the settlement agreement, known as a consent decree. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Jackson.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has said his plan is to send the 17-and-younger inmates to Central Mississippi Correctional Facility by Oct. 1. He said there are about 1,000 vacant beds at CMCF now, so there is no need for a new building.