JACKSON, Miss. (CN) - Mississippi underwrites a privately run juvenile prison where youngsters "live in barbaric, unconstitutional conditions," where rape, beatings, drug smuggling by guards and medical and educational neglect are the norm, 13 boys and young men say in a federal class action. The Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, built with more than $41 million in taxpayer dollars, "has generated approximately $100 million for the various for-profit entities that have operated the prison since it opened its doors in 2001," according to the complaint.
Mississippi taxpayers pay Walnut Grove Correctional Authority $14 million a year to run the prison. "In turn, the WGCA contracts with the GEO Group Inc., the second-largest private correctional company in the United States, to oversee the prison's daily operations," the complaint states.
Walnut Grove, the GEO Group, and top prison officials are named as defendants, as are Health Assurance LLC, which provides medical services in the prison, and the Superintendent of the Mississippi Department of Education.
Walnut Grove is a private prison for 13- to 22-year-old offenders, most of whom are jailed for nonviolent offenses.
The teens say the prison is extremely dangerous, with violent fights every week. They say they "live in unconstitutional and inhumane conditions and endure great risks to their safety and security."
Understaffing is the norm; the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure and a corrections auditor warned that lack of staffing could cause an increase in violence. The complaint adds that the jail is "dangerously understaffed and because existing staff lack the training and supervision necessary to care for the youth in their custody, corruption and violence is rampant."
One "young man was held hostage in his cell for almost 24 hours, brutally raped and physically assaulted after prison staff failed to heed his pleas for protection," the complaint states. "Other youth suffered multiple stabbings and beatings - including one youth who lives with permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which prison staff were entirely complicit."
Inmates attacked by cellmates say prison staff ignore requests to be moved, and say the staff, especially those working in protective custody, "routinely incite violence among prisoners by leaving cell doors open."
They add that prison doors can be "rigged" to remain unlocked when shut, which has led to numerous assaults.
"Prison staff exploit youth by selling drugs inside the facility," the complaint states. "Other staff members abuse their power by engaging in sexual relationships with the youth in their care. ... Youth who are handcuffed and defenseless have been kicked, punched, and beaten all over their bodies. For the sole purpose of inflicting excruciating pain, some WGYCF staff have sprayed dangerous chemical restraints on young men who are secure in their cells. Some youth are stripped naked and held in isolation for weeks at a time."
Prison staff ignore inmates who are suicidal; one young man committed suicide after telling guards he was going to kill himself. The staff put nonsuicidal inmates into a "suicide watch cell" where they are stripped naked, forced to sleep on a steel bed frame without a mattress, given only one blanket and confined to the cell for 24 hours a day.
Inmates say they are denied the legally required "free and appropriate education;" some have had to wait weeks or months for medical treatment, and they have been denied necessary medications.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction, correction of the unconstitutional abuses, costs and damages. They are represented by Sheila A. Bedi with the Southern Poverty Law Center.