Judge sets hearing that could bring change to Walnut Grove prison oversight

Judge Carlton Reeves
Judge Carlton Reeves
Judge Carlton Reeves

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — People seeking further changes at a privately run prison in Leake County are on track to get a chance to try to persuade a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves has scheduled a hearing March 30 where those suing the Mississippi Department of Corrections over conditions at Walnut Grove Correctional Facility could present evidence seeking a new or modified court order governing the conditions there. That was the outcome of a three-hour hearing Thursday by the judge.

Reeves signed a consent decree in 2012 pulling juveniles out of Walnut Grove and ordering changes for adult prisoners. Before the March hearing, the parties must seek mediation before a federal magistrate.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center say the state and its private operator — Management & Training Corp. — haven’t met the terms of the order. They want a chance to prove it to Reeves.

The state and MTC are resisting that process. MTC Senior Vice President of Corrections Odie Washington said in a post-hearing interview that the company is in “substantial compliance.”

Gary Friedman, a lawyer representing MTC and the state, told Reeves the plaintiffs aren’t entitled to a hearing because the consent decree requires written notice and mediation. He said the defendants have never been adequately notified of what the plaintiffs see as problems.

“It’s like a moving target,” he told Reeves. “It’s like whack-a-mole.”

Friedman argued that the ACLU is portraying Walnut Grove in the worst possible light and suggested the judge come inspect the facility himself. He said informal negotiation is working.

“It seems to me however they want to portray it, the system is working, the system in that consent decree,” Friedman told Reeves.

But Winter said the state has had “ample” notice of the ACLU’s complaints and refuses to sign a written agreement.

“We need further relief that is binding and if they won’t consent to such relief, then we need an order from the judge,” she said.

Reeves expressed some doubts about compliance, noting a July riot, plus monitors’ findings that Walnut Grove still struggles to contain contraband cell phones and drugs.

Washington said a recent uptick in contraband finds is part of a process of MTC implementing tighter controls.

Winter said big concerns remain regarding inmate safety, whether MTC has enough adequately trained staff, whether guards are overusing force and chemical spray and whether the state is doing enough to monitor MTC.

Friedman said MTC has hired more staff, implemented new training following the July riot, and moved out the most serious offenders after that disturbance.

But even on simple items like whether inmates can still force cell doors open, there remains disagreement.

“The cell doors have been fixed,” Friedman said. “That was remediated system-wide.”

Winter said in an interview after the hearing that her information indicates cell doors were only fixed in two of Walnut Grove’s seven units.

She told Reeves the plaintiffs are also concerned about whether prisoner grievance proceedings are functioning and whether the prison is ignoring reports of sexual assault and rape.