Imprisoning Our Kids for a Profit

Michael McIntosh testifies at Mississippi hearing in January 2011.(Southern Poverty Law Center)
Michael McIntosh testifies at Mississippi hearing in January 2011.(Southern Poverty Law Center)

Mike McIntosh II, 21, used to be a vibrant athlete who loved doing kick flips on his skateboard, scoring goals on the soccer field and executing extreme bike tricks on his BMX. He was smart, too, studying welding at a community college, his father recalled recently.


"He was a sports fanatic," the father, Michael McIntosh, 47, told The Root. "He used to work out with me, so I knew he was a strong kid, because I'm a former U.S. Marine."

But now the 5-foot-8 youth of medium build is a shell of his former self, physically hobbled and brain damaged during a 2010 riot at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, the private prison in Jackson, Miss., where he remains incarcerated, his father said. (The elder McIntosh declined to discuss the reason for the arrest that led to his son's incarceration because of pending litigation.) McIntosh blames the prison for lack of supervision and a staff that flouts the law, engaging in abuse of young prisoners themselves.

"He drags his right leg when he walks now, and he's just gaining use of his right arm," McIntosh said. "He has brain damage. He can't tell you what happened. He doesn't remember things we talked about yesterday. It's sad and torturous for me."

Taking Legal Action

On May 5, dozens of members of Friends and Family Members of Youth Incarcerated at Walnut Grove — an organization founded by McIntosh — held a news conference to announce the delivery of petitions to Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, calling on him to cancel the system's contract with the GEO Group, the Florida company that runs the facility. (Epps said in an email to The Root that he could not comment because of pending litigation. Pablo Paez, a spokesman for GEO Group, also declined to comment via email.)

The petitions, with 1,600 signatures, are part of a long-running battle between families and Walnut Grove. In November 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights attorney Robert B. McDuff filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against GEO, the prison administration and state officials.

The suit charges that children are forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive force by prison staff. The prison houses 1,200 young men between the ages of 13 and 22 who have been tried and convicted as adults. More than two-thirds of the facility's inmates have been incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, and the population is about 90 percent African American.


The suit unveils a litany of disturbing complaints, including internecine warfare, prison staff exploiting youths by selling drugs inside the facility, and staff engaging in sexual relationships with youths in their care. It also reveals that inmates like McIntosh have received serious, permanent injuries as a result of Walnut Grove's deficient security policies and violent staff members.

One young man, according to the lawsuit, was tied to his bunk for almost 24 hours by another inmate, then brutally raped and sexually assaulted after prison staff failed to respond to his cries for protection. In yet another example, the suit says that other youths suffered multiple stabbings and beatings at the hands of inmates and staff, said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director of the SPLC.


Profits, Not Rehab

At the core of the suit is the allegation that the purpose of Walnut Grove and other for-profit prisons is intrinsically flawed because they are set up to maintain prison populations rather than rehabilitate and release inmates, Jody Owens II, director of the Jackson office of the SPLC, told The Root. It's a condition that's getting increasing attention as the ranks of inmates in private prisons grow.


As of June 30, 2008, there were 126,249 prisoners in private facilities, accounting for 7.8 percent of all prisoners in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That's up from 6.5 percent in 2000. Owens lauded NPR, which in March ran a hard-hitting series about the conundrum of for-profit prisons, which supply jobs and revenue to the communities in which they're based.

The GEO Group is paid based on the number of youths housed at Walnut Grove, which was constructed with more than $41 million of taxpayer funding. When it opened in 2001, it was praised as a model youth facility, but since then, independent consultants have had to help overhaul procedures. It has also tripled in size, resulting in significant profits for the GEO Group. 


"Facilities like Walnut Grove receive federal dollars to educate these inmates," Owens said. "The kids say they never go to school, or attend very irregularly. Instead of an everyday thing, they might go once every three weeks because guards find reasons not to let them go. You hear things about excessive lockdown, where kids are left in the cells 23 hours a day. You imagine what life is like for these youth."

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice recently began investigating some of the allegations, according to NPR.


A Father's Search for His Son

For his part, Michael McIntosh, an environmental biologist, is waiting for justice to be served. He tells the poignant story of showing up at the prison one Sunday in March 2010 to find his child gone, like so much air.


"I was told that he was not there," he said. "I knew something was wrong with that answer because he would have called when he was released. No one at the facility would let me know where he was. They suggested I call during regular business hours.

"After three days of trying to get answers, the warden called me back," McIntosh continued. "He said there was an incident and my son was involved. They still would not tell me where my son was. They referred me to the Department of Corrections. They in turn played kick the can. So I bounced back and forth between the two for 2½ weeks."


McIntosh recalled how, during that time, he also began a frantic search of local hospitals. After about 3½ weeks, he found his son at a local hospital, but staff refused to allow him to visit, referring him instead to the Department of Corrections. The department granted him authorization to see Mike, but when he arrived, he was told that his son had been moved to another facility the previous day. After another search, he found him, this time at a hospital two hours away, he said. He was permitted to see Mike after a week of red tape.

"I went into the room to see my son. I was overcome with emotion," he said. "I was two feet away from him, and he could not see me. He had cuts all over his face. He couldn't walk, couldn't talk and couldn't sit up. He couldn't do anything. His eyes were bloodshot, and he had a severe head injury. He was in critical condition.


"By this time, I'm upset and hurt. He can't remember anything," McIntosh continued. "I had to contact the Department of Corrections again, and they refused to answer any more questions. Walnut Grove wouldn't answer any questions. No one ever said sorry.

"It wasn't until some time later that I found out there was a riot and my son was jumped on, severely beaten and almost lost his life," he said. "They did nothing to warn or tell me that. They just decided to try to sweep it under the rug as much as they could. But I'm not going to let that happen. I'm not going to let that happen at all."


Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.