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The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Private prison closures must also happen at state level

Any excitement over the Obama administration’s recent decision to stop the federal use of private prisons should be short-lived. While this decision marks an important moment in the movement to eliminate the use of private prisons, it was only a minor step—we must be cautious not to grow comfortable with this very  small improvement.

A spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the two main private prison groups in the United States, stated that this recent decision only affects a mere 7 percent of its total business. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the decision to phase out the use of private prisons will only result in the closure of 13 federal private prisons currently in use, one of which is located in Natchez, Mississippi. 

The decision did not, however, affect federal facilities contracted out to the Department of Homeland Security to hold immigrant families detained for deportation or the state-run facilities which make up the majority of private prisons. 

For Mississippians, any rejoicing over the decision should be quickly replaced with a fervent call to end the use of private prisons on the state level. 

Mississippi’s private prisons are an affront to justice. As long as lobbying in the interest of private prisons continues at the Capitol, effective criminal justice reform will be all the more difficult to achieve. 

Mississippi’s dependence on private prisons is not unique. Rather, it was the result of the explosion in the prison population that began in the 1980s. The Sentencing Project notes that in the past four decades, the United States has seen its prison population increase by approximately 500 percent. 

In order to accommodate the rapid growth of the incarcerated population, private prison contracts began as a way for the government to save money building and maintaining prisons. 

Mississippi particularly depended on private prisons as its inmate population rapidly grew in the 1990s. This led Mississippi to have the second highest incarceration rate in the country, with a notably disproportionate number of this population being African American.  A University of Wisconsin study on private prisons in Mississippi found that 40 percent of the state prison population was held in privately run facilities as of 2012.

Prison Legal News states that in order for Mississippi to enter a private prison contract, the prisons must guarantee a 10 percent reduction in costs. However, these savings often lead to a reduction in both the salary and number of prison staff and limit spending on important inmate resources such as medical and mental health care. 

The problem with private prison companies such as GEO Group and CCA is they often cut corners in their effort to make a profit. As a result, prisoner safety and well-being suffers. 

According to a to a Walnut Grove Court Monitor’s report on the number of prisoner assaults in Mississippi, “Assault rates in private prisons average two to three times the rate of assaults in state-run prisons.” 

The report cites an extreme case where, at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility (WCGF) in Mississippi, the assault rate reached 27 per every 100 prisoners, significantly higher than state-run prisons’ average assault rate of seven percent.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) began investigating the conditions of private prisons in Mississippi after numerous complaints were filed by juvenile inmates at WGCF. The SPLC found evidence that on multiple occasions mentally-ill prisoners were denied basic mental health care and were often punished in solitary confinement. 

 Federal Judge Carlton Reeves described Walnut Grove as allowing “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.” 

The Department of Justice noted the severe problem of sexual misconduct by staff which they described as “among the worst we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” Walnut Grove also failed to provide adequate educational and rehabilitative programs to inmates, which was especially problematic due to the fact that it housed teenagers as young as 13.

It took federal action in order for Mississippi to alleviate the problems occurring in its own private facility, problems which Judge Reeves described as being “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” 

The Department of Justice emphasized in its reports that the Mississippi Department of Corrections demonstrated a “deliberate indifference” to the problems occurring throughout the investigation. 

Following Judge Reeves ruling, GEO group was no longer allowed to manage Walnut Grove. However, Mississippi did not waste any time in issuing a contract with another private prison company to run WGCF. 

 I find it incredibly difficult to believe that simply replacing GEO Group with another private company will prevent human rights violations in Mississippi facilities like Walnut Grove. 

Mississippi’s proven disregard of issues that arise within private prisons like Walnut Grove does not set a promising precedent for Mississippi’s future interaction with private prisons. 

The savings offered by private prisons do not outweigh the state’s indifference to the inhumane conditions within them. Terminating the use of private prisons must be a priority for our state. 

Ideally, there would be a reduction in Mississippi’s overall prison population. Our ultimate goal should be to no longer have the second -highest state incarceration rate. However, we must also value the integral role eliminating private prisons plays in wholesome and effective criminal justice reform.

 As long as private prisons, who have a vested financial interest in maintaining a high incarcerated population, continue to lobby state leaders in Jackson, achieving effective criminal justice reform will remain a steep uphill battle. 

True justice cannot be attained while prisoners are merely a tool for financial gain. We must begin to place priority on the well-being of all individuals, both incarcerated and free. The public’s interest should hold priority over the financial interest of private companies. 


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Private prison closures must also happen at state level