/Gang-control allegations at Wilkinson prison mirrored in East Mississippi lawsuit

Gang-control allegations at Wilkinson prison mirrored in East Mississippi lawsuit

Despite these similarities, Management & Training Corp. officials, who operate the Wilkinson prison at Woodville and East Mississippi Correctional Facility at Meridian — which are the subject of a federal suit — dispute claims about gangs operating their prisons. Issa Arnita is MTC’s director of corporate communications. She stated that they have never given control of the Wilkinson facility to gang leaders. He said that “that in no way is reality at the prison.” He also denied claims about East Mississippi gangs. The Marshall Project, an independent news organization, published the June 26 results of Wilkinson’s MTC-initiated audit. The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting obtained a copy the audit. This audit raises similar concerns to the litigation against EMCF about understaffing, poorly-trained staff, and insufficient counting of prisoners, which can affect the safety and security both of staff members and prisoners. Concerns about privately-run prisons have been raised by the auditor’s assessment at Wilkinson prison. In May 2013, the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections on behalf of EMCF inmates. The case remains pending. Eric Balaban (senior staff counsel for the ACLU National Prison Project) stated that EMCF is a 1,500-bed prison housing most of the state’s mentally ill inmates. “The state has remained in a perpetual crisis state for several years. One where gangs have controlled over the housing units to a point where they decide where prisoners will be housed and what cells they would occupy.” According to court records, MTC has made significant improvements including increased staffing and cell searches as well as reducing the number of assaults. Eldon Vail was the plaintiff’s expert witness and he evaluated the facility in 2014., 2016., and 2018. He acknowledged the improvements in his most recent report, but stated that they were not enough. Vail stated that EMCF was still a dangerous prison in 2018, despite having adequate security personnel throughout. This expert report was required by the court to assess whether prison conditions have improved. Vail’s evaluation was made based on interviews with prisoners, his observation and records of the state’s prison monitor, who repeatedly expressed concern about poor prison conditions and gang control. The plaintiffs argued that MTC officials depend on the gangs to manage the facility in a May post-trial brief. Many times, assaults and extortion have been a result of prisoner and gang control over EMCF. One prisoner was sodomized by gang members for four hours after he claimed he stole their drugs. Later, he was extorted and moved to segregation by gang members.” The auditor stated that such a strategy allows inmates to be disruptive and could lead to staff compromise, corruption and inappropriate relations between inmates and staff. Arnita from MTC said that the audit was not “meant to be public consumption” and that Bradley’s statement was taken out of context by The Marshall Project. Bradley did not respond when asked. Arnita stated that in order to manage a challenging population in a correctional facility like the Wilkinson, where over 80 percent of the inmates are affiliated with a criminal gang, there are many strategies. These include open dialogue with gang leaders and what we call STG leaders, leaders of security threat groups. The Corrections Department stated that it doesn’t condone the use gangs to manage prisoners and was still waiting for an official copy. Arnita stated that prison officials regularly share information with Corrections Department’s contract monitor. “Who is aware of the challenges we’ve set in place to address them,” Arnita said. Gov. Bobby Morgan, his spokesperson, stated that Phil Bryant “trusts MDOC with properly handling and navigating operational challenges.” “The governor is against illegal activity in our prisons. Mississippi Department of Corrections collaborates tirelessly with its vendors in order to create a safe environment for its prisoners.” MTC manages 21 correctional facilities across the country. MDOC contracted the company to manage Wilkinson, the EMCF, and Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs. The prisons are privately run, but they are paid for with taxpayer money. Annual appropriations are approved by the Legislature for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. This includes funding for private prison contracts. The Legislature approved $66.7 million to fund the private prison program, which started July 1, and $67.2 millions for the previous fiscal. Sampson Jackson II (chair of the Mississippi Senate Corrections Committee) said that the state legislature must investigate the allegations against Wilkinson prison when it returns next year. “If they’re true, we’ll address them.” MTC paid $5.2 million in January to settle a civil suit filed by Attorney General Jim Hood alleging that the company used “consultants” to influence Chris Epps, former Corrections Commissioner, via bribes or kickbacks to retain MDOC contracts. This was one of 11 civil settlements against several contractors who do business with MDOC. They accumulated $26.6 million. Hood, a Democrat running for governor, stated that the audit is not surprising when politicians receive campaign donations from these companies and then give contracts to poor run the state’s correctional institutions. He would not comment on the EMCF suit, which his office is defending. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is not responding to requests for comment. MTC video challenges audit Arnita maintained that Wilkinson prison was a “clean, orderly,” well-run facility. “Our hallmark is rehabilitation.” MTC offers a variety of educational, vocational and substance abuse programs. MTC created a five minute video to respond to The Marshall Project’s story. It shows a clean facility, with prisoners dressed in appropriate attire, some attending classes, and others doing chores. The video is in stark contrast to The Marshall Project security-camera footage that showed Brad Fitch being fatally stabbed six hours after his arrival at Wilkinson in 2018. Arnita declined to comment on the incident. Joshua Tom, the legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, stated that he was shocked by reports that the ex-warden collaborated with gangs to run Wilkinson prison. However, he said that he wasn’t surprised by the poor conditions at the facility. He said that it was not surprising that any Mississippi prison had a former warden. However, he acknowledged that the facility’s poor conditions are not the reason for the reports. Sara Revell, regional vice-president for MTC, stated that the company has reduced staff vacancies by half since November. MTC also says it is working with MDOC on increasing the salaries of correctional officers. Their annual salary was raised from $21,840 a $23,400. Starting salaries for correctional officers working in state-run prisons are $24,900. If they receive the 3-percent increase lawmakers approved during the previous legislative session, they will be able to earn $25,647. Ronnie Fisher, president and CEO of Wilkinson County Industrial Development Authority said that he visited Wilkinson prison recently as a surprise visitor. He was impressed by the facility’s staff and found it “clean” and orderly. However, despite Arnita’s claim that MTC wants to “operate in the spirit of transparency”, he refused to grant MCIR’s request for an interview with the new warden, or to provide data about its contract with the state, or any serious injuries or deaths at the prison. MTC is currently working to repair the prison’s roof leakage and harden cells. However, it is difficult to assess whether the improvements made at the prison will be sufficient to ensure the safety, security, and health of staff and inmates. Balaban stated that the state and local governments are responsible for overseeing private prison operations. Balaban stated that the state and local governments have an obligation to oversee private prison operations.