Troubled Walnut Grove private prison to close

Print More

A privately run prison in Leake County will be shuttered this fall, officials from the Mississippi Department of Corrections announced Friday.

According to a press release from MDOC, the decision is based on a tighter than expected budget and a falling prison population in the state.

MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher

Marshall Fisher, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections

“MDOC’s budget is lower than what we anticipated,” MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher said in the press release. “We have determined this is the most prudent action. We have the space in our state-run prisons to house the 900 inmates at Walnut Grove (Correctional Facility).”

In recent years, Walnut Grove has been under mounting scrutiny.

The facility opened in 2001 to house persons convicted for serious crimes while they were children. The Southern Poverty Law Center of Mississippi and American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over conditions at the prison in 2010, which resulted in a federal settlement.

At the time of the suit, Boca Raton-based private correctional operator the GEO Group ran the prison on the state’s behalf. When GEO dropped its contract, another firm, Utah-based Management & Training Corp. took over managing the prison in 2012.

Fisher said MDOC has been pleased with MTC’s management of Walnut Grove and three other prisons, in Marshall, Lauderdale and Wilkinson counties. MTC’s contract to run Walnut Grove is $14.6 million per year.

Since Fisher took over MDOC after former Commissioner Chris Epps was indicted on federal corruption charges, he has closed four community work centers, eliminated the joint state-county work program and lowered the number of people incarcerated at regional jails.

Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC, which successfully sued in 2015 to extend the settlement because, attorneys claimed, little progress had been made toward making the facility safer for prisoners, said that when SPLC first sued, the prison was one of the worst in the country.

“This is a joyous day for all the people who were beaten raped at that facility,” Owens said by phone on Friday afternoon. “While Commissioner Fisher cites budget constraints, it’s just common sense (to close the prison).”

Bernie Warner, MTC’s senior vice president of corrections, said the company is disappointed by the termination of the contract, but that the decision is in the best interest of Mississippi taxpayers.

“Our hearts go out to the excellent staff at the facility. We have some of the best corrections professionals in the business at the facility, and we know this will be very difficult for them. We will do our best to help make the transition as smooth as possible,” Warner said.