On November 16, 2010, thirteen boys and young men incarcerated at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility ("WGYCF") in Leakes County, Mississippi, filed this class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, against the city entity responsible for operating WGYCF (the Walnut Grove Correctional Authority), the for-profit corporations under contract to manage the facility (GEO Group, Inc.) and provide medical care for the prisoners (Health Assurance, L.L.C.), several officials at WGYCF, and the Mississippi Departments of Corrections and Education. The plaintiffs, represented by the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Prison Project of the ACLU, and private counsel, challenged what they referred to as the "barbaric, unconstitutional conditions" of confinement at WGYCF.
The plaintiffs alleged that staff and officials at WGYCF (1) instigated or were complicit in prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual assaults; (2) dealt and allowed the dealing of drugs within the facility; (3) engaged in sexual misconduct with the prisoners; (4) used excessive force (including chemical restraints) on the prisoners; (5) placed prisoners in punitive isolation with no penological justification; (6) failed to provide urgently needed medical and mental health care to prisoners, all in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and (7) failed to provide education for prisoners of school age and special education for prisoners with disabilities in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, §§ 1400 et seq., Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111 et seq., and state law. The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief.
Counsel for the plaintiffs had begun investigating the conditions at the WGYCF in 2006, and in fact had already begun settlement negotiations with the defendants prior to filing suit. As the parties were negotiating throughout the course of the action, very little appears on the docket other than extensions of deadlines. Notably, however, all defendants but the Mississippi Departments of Corrections and Education were released by the plaintiffs on November 15, 2011, with the understanding that the Departments could provide the plaintiffs with the complete relief sought.
Negotiations continued until February 3, 2012, when the parties submitted their proposed settlement agreement to the District Court. The agreement consisted of two consent decrees, one pertaining to present and future prisoners at WGYCF and one pertaining to all prisoners in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections ("MDOC") who were ages 17 or under or who were ages 18 or 19 and will be housed in the Youthful Offender Unit.
Under the terms of the first consent decree, MDOC agreed (1) to limit the use of force at WGYCF to that necessary to safely contain prisoners, to get the Warden's approval for the use of force, and to document any use of force with audio-visual recordings and in writing; (2) to limit and document the use of chemical restraints; (3) to limit the use of long-term cell confinement and isolation to certain specific circumstances; (4) to guarantee disciplinary due process and an create an adequate grievance procedure; (5) to implement an adequate and humane suicide prevention policy; and (6) to provide "adequate, appropriate, and timely" medical, dental and mental health care. The decree also arranged for the appointment of monitors to work with MDOC to create appropriate policies and enforce compliance, and it gave the monitors and plaintiffs' counsel complete access to the WGYCF facility and records. If the plaintiffs believed the defendants were not in compliance with the decree, they could seek enforcement by the Court after fulfilling notice and cure requirements. No class member was barred by the decree from bringing individual suit against the defendants. The decree was to last for five years, but could end sooner if the Court found the WGYCF had been in compliance for two years and could be extended up to two years if the Court found that MDOC had failed to substantially comply.
The second consent decree arranged for the creation of a Youthful Offender Unit ("YOU") at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility to house all prisoners ages 17 or under who are in MDOC custody and certain prisoners ages 18 and 19. That is, the WGYCF will no longer house youths who are ages 17 and under. The terms for YOU are similar to those for WGYCF, with the notable differences that solitary confinement is prohibited entirely, a focus is placed on rehabilitative programming, and a visitation policy is specifically addressed.
After fairness hearings on March 22, 2012, the District Court (Judge Carlton W. Reeves) granted final approval for the consent decrees on March 26 and certified the two classes for the purpose of the settlements.
On May 29, 2012, the Court held an emergency hearing, requested by the plaintiffs in light of two incidents, a rape and a stabbing, that had occurred after the consent decrees went into effect. The parties agreed that the defendants would alert the plaintiffs' counsel if there were any further incidents of violence at the facility, and that they would work together to keep further incidents from occurring as the consent decrees took effect and changes began to be made.
On July 10, 2014, a riot took place at WGYCF, more extreme than a previous riot that took place six months earlier. These occurrences suggesting an increase in inmate violence and overall chaos at WGYCF prompted the plaintiffs to file a motion for enforcement and modification of consent decree on August 6, 2014, in which they requested an evidentiary hearing in order to take testimony on whether additional remedial measures were required to provide reasonably safe living conditions and freedom from violence at WGYCF. No hearing was immediately set, as the Court allowed for the parties to pursue their mediation obligations between themselves and through the magistrate judge. On March 13, 2015, the defendants filed a motion to terminate prospective relief granted and ordered by the Court’s approval of the consent decree.
A hearing on both motions was held in April 2015. On June 11, 2015, the Court issued an order denying the defendants' motion to terminate the consent decree and granting in part and denying in part the plaintiffs' motion. The court found that, while the defendants had improved upon the conditions that existed at the time of the riots and a majority of the consent decree's provisions were no longer necessary, continuing and ongoing violations of the plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights remained. The Court will continue to enforce the consent decree. Depriest v. Walnut Grove Corr. Auth., No. 3:10-CV-663-CWR-FKB, 2015 WL 3795020 (S.D. Miss. June 10, 2015).
On July 13, 2015, the defendants filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, ongoing as of March 2016.Christopher Schad - 07/17/2012
Richard Jolly - 11/18/2014
Katrina Fetsch - 03/27/2016