Editor’s Note: The Jackson Advocate was able to connect with the Mississippi Department of Corrections late Wednesday concerning the following report on the newly reopened Walnut Grove Correctional Facility. MDOC Assistant Deputy Commissioner Leo Honeycutt issued the following statement via telephone at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday:
“I checked into what you called me about regarding Walnut Grove. We don’t have anything on file of anybody there filing a complaint about discrimination. Feel free to call us about anyone there who needs to talk to personnel or HR or whatever else that may apply. It would be great because we don’t want that kind of thing. Feel free to call me back.”
In 2013, Mother Jones Magazine listed the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility as one of the ten worst prisons in the United States. Its record of rape and violent assault against inmates by guards and other inmates was “the worst of any facility anywhere in the nation,” said juvenile justice advocate Richard Ross.
“The Walnut Grove facility, which has 1,492 beds and costs the state $14.6 million each year, has a checkered history,” Mother Jones reported in its May 13, 2013 edition. “A 2010 U.S. Justice Department investigation into the prison, then operated by the Geo Group as a juvenile detention facility, found ‘systematic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.’”
When the facility was finally closed under federal and state orders in September 2016, current Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, the managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016, called Walnut Grove “a cesspool” and welcomed its closing in September of that year.
“Good riddance to Walnut Grove,” Owens said with finality.
Five years later, however, with conditions in the Mississippi prison system going completely haywire and new MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain in charge, it was decided that the idle facility at Walnut Grove with a capacity for 1,200 inmates, if reopened, could relieve some of the pressure at the overcrowded prisons at Parchman and in Greene and Wilkinson counties.
Cain’s projected reopening date was for July 15, 2021, with staffing and training of trustees to take place in the first three months. The relocation of the first inmates began in October and November of 2021.
Current reports from inside the prison indicate that there are only about 70 inmates there – 49 Black and 21 white.
“Nobody’s escaped Walnut Grove,” a member of the front-office staff said. “The guards give the inmates a hard time and will spray the hell out of those inmates who don’t submit to their control. You can smell the gas all the way down here where I am. And I’m in the front section, a good distance before you go through the prison.”
Shanterria Mingo, 27, a mother of two, resigned from her job as correctional officer at Walnut Grove on March 18. She had worked at Walnut Grove for four years with a security agency during the long period of idleness. She was hired by Walnut Grove after it reopened as a prison in October 2021.
“They should have never reopened Walnut Grove prison,” she says. “How can you have a prison that’s open with no cameras working?”
Mingo says that she and other Black members of the workforce at Walnut Grove mostly agree that an aura of racism hovers over the entire operation there. The top staff at Walnut Grove is overwhelmingly white, she says.
“It seems to me that the white inmates get more privileges than the Black inmates,” she said.
Temporarily out of work, Mingo says she may go to work at one of the casinos. But she prefers law enforcement work to all other forms.
“Law enforcement is all I know, really,” she says. “And I know that the inmates at Walnut Grove were in sympathy with me. And I cared for them. I guess because both my parents had spent some time in prison, I visualized what it was like for them. I could look at my job at Walnut as if my parents were still in prison. And I’m not going to treat any of the inmates like animals.”
Mingo had four years of experience in the field, she says, before she signed on to the Walnut Grove staff.
“I was working there for four months,” she said. “The Black people would come and talk to me and ask why is it that the white inmates are able to go out and talk to the white guards, while the Black inmates were not allowed to talk with the Black guards?”
Walnut Grove’s staff is overpopulated with white guys, Mingo and some of her colleagues have observed. Black people there are scared to speak up, she says.
“When I resigned, some of the guys placed little cards in their windows,” she said. “It’s something like a ‘help me’ card. Like they’re not safe or something.”
Mingo said her earliest disappointment came during her training session for a special assignment inside the system.
“They hired me as a correctional officer,” she said. “I was promised a certain job assignment, but when it came time for me to report to the assigned position, I was told that it was not open for me. They put me out there on perimeter. Perimeter is on the outside of the prison where you are to keep an eye on the outside and make sure that nobody steals anything from the facility.
“When I spoke to the warden about it, he told me to come back and talk to him once I had finished training at the academy. I came back to talk to him, and he tells me he’d given the spot away to someone else because he thought I wasn’t going to show up.
“So, I’m like how do you think I’m not going to show up when I’m working? But I didn’t sweat it, and let it pass. But more people were pulling me to the side and telling me, you know you’re not going to get that spot because it’s an all-white thing. It’s a clique. So, I pushed back. And, finally, I resigned.”
One of the best-kept secrets of the Mississippi prison employment system is the disproportionate number of women working in the most dangerous jobs inside the system, at all levels. The Marshall Project, a public interest NGO named for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, reported on Feb. 20, 2020 that female correctional officers in Mississippi are sometimes overwhelmed by the system.
“At Wilkinson, a prisoner seized keys from a female officer working solo in long-term solitary, the prison’s most dangerous unit,” the report said. “He unlocked three friends; they opened the cell of Jerome Harris and stabbed him in the head, chest, and back, according to an MTC (Management & Training Corporation private prison) incident report.”
Women have taken on jobs in Mississippi prisons that in the past were reserved for and frequently required the strength and reactive force of men. With their new jobs, women correctional officers have often become the brunt of the violence and hostile attacks stemming from inmate outbursts and disruptions within the system.
One of the Black females working in the Walnut Grove front office gave an account of the faltering system there.
“The good ol’ boys are running the prison,” she said. “I had to make them respect me enough to speak to me every day. One day I walked in there and I asked them, I said, ‘You walked past me like I was a nobody. But I’m working here for you. My parents taught me that anybody can speak. Are you having a problem with me?’
“A lot of inmates are being mistreated. I don’t witness it directly. But I hear about it from the guards and the people working inside,” she added.
“They’ve got three inmates on suicide watch right now,” another female guard said.
Mingo says she is puzzled why the cameras are not working at Walnut Grove.
“This was not my first time working at a prison,” she said. “But I’ve never been to or worked at a prison where the cameras are not working.”
The malfunctioning cameras might have been deliberately left unrepaired in order to protect the unlawful behavior of some white staff members, Mingo suggested.
“They’ve been having a lot of problems,” she said. “There was one young lady working there who was discovered to have been having sex with the inmates. They gave her the option of quitting, so she wouldn’t have to be fired and have that show up on her record. They didn’t walk her through the Hall of Shame like they did the Black people, searching their vehicles and stuff. So, there is prejudice. ”
Sexual activity among the staff and with inmates at the reopened Walnut Grove is an issue that has been swept under the rug, she said.
Another Black staff member said she had learned that some of the white staff were having sex on the night shift. The lieutenant was switched to day shift so he wouldn’t get fired, she said.
“Then a female CO was discovered to be having sex with an inmate. They got her to quit so she wouldn’t get fired and go to jail.
“They had all white girls, young girls, in the offices. They had one Black woman, and they put her in the hallway because she was Black.
”They want to get an all-white staff there, so they can control everything,” this officer said.
Mingo says prison staff must be on their toes at all times. They don’t know when someone inside the workforce may try to incriminate a Black staff member who is not in good favor.
“There is the possibility that someone can plant a controlled substance in your car while you are at work and then alert the city police or sheriff’s office of the situation,” she said.
“One of the women in our training class started to work with us and they escorted her out. She might have had drugs in her car, and Lee County authorities were outside waiting for her. They tried to tell us that she told them that she had marijuana in her vehicle, which we know was a lie. Because what odd Black person would sit there and tell you, ‘Oh I just remembered, I’ve got drugs in my car?’”
Mingo’s former co-worker confirms the suspicion that there is a move to make Walnut Grove essentially a white-run facility.
“Ms. Mingo was a good worker. I think she saw something back there on segregation that she wasn’t supposed to see,” the office worker said. “From that point on, they put her out there on perimeter duty. The next thing I know, she was coming in there telling them that she couldn’t stay there because she had kids she had to take to school every day. It was a conflict and she wound up resigning.”
Mingo is assured that she is not paranoid in her perception of racist practices at Walnut Grove.
“I’ve talked with some of the other people there, and they told me if I need them, they will tell everything that has been going on at Walnut Grove,” said Mingo. “I have several other people who are willing to tell what they have been seeing. And it’s not only Black people who are willing to speak out. There are some white people, too, who are involved and want to speak out.”
A fourth witness to the developments at Walnut Grove was willing to talk but asked for anonymity because of possible retaliation at her job.
“The whole issue is the racism and the discrimination,” she said. “There are only two of us working up front, and the only reason I’m up there is because the Warden who was there before gave me the position. But everybody white coming through into the system now, they’re putting them up front, and not putting them on the floor. And that’s not right. You’ve got qualified Black people who want to work up front, but they’re out there on the floor.”
This employee says she has a minor handicap that prevents her from being assigned to the floor. “I stay right there at the main gate,” she said.
“My main issue is the way they’re treating those Black boys out there on the floor,” she said. “It’s sad. I’ve got five sons and as I told Ms. Mingo, if they pick up one of my sons and subject him to this kind of treatment, I’m suing everybody involved.”
This employee also agrees that Walnut Grove should have remained shut down.
LOW PAY, LOW STAFF
Dangers lurk everywhere in Mississippi’s understaffed and underpaid prisons – for both inmates and salaried prison personnel. Most reports show there to be a direct correlation between the amount paid to experienced correctional officers and the degree of law and order within the facility.
“Prisoners have attacked guards more than 340 times a year, on average, since 2016,” the Marshall Project report says of Mississippi’s prison system. “There were an average of 1,300 guards on the job each year. They were beaten, stabbed with makeshift knives, sexually assaulted, and often ‘dashed’ – prison slang for being doused with urine, feces, or hot water – according to state records (http://www.lbo.ms.gov/PublicReports) and interviews. The state acknowledged that about 115 of these assaults each year caused serious injuries.”
The Marshall Project showed that Mississippi lost over a third of its correctional officers between 2016 and 2019.
Apart from the immediate threat of attack and constant humiliation from the over-crowded inmate population, money is the crucial factor that keeps Mississippi males from taking the jobs. Beginning salaries for correctional officers at state facilities was $25,650, and $23,400, the Marshall Project reported in its 2020 study. This pay was less than half of what beginning correctional officers were paid in Massachusetts ($58,680), or nationwide ($49,300).
As the complete breakdown of discipline and control in Mississippi prisons reached its highest point in April 2020, state authorities finally agreed to offer salary increases. The website Salary.com reports: The average correctional officer salary in Mississippi is $41,427 as of March 29, 2022, but the range typically falls between $36,886 and $45,972.
The Associated Press, however, reported on Jan. 26, 2022 that the beginning salary for a correctional officer in Mississippi was still the lowest in the nation at $27,000. The same AP report shows Georgia’s minimum salary for correctional officers is $36,044. Alabama’s starting salary is $36,500. Bucking the Southern lowball salary, Tennessee’s entry-level correctional officer pay is $44,520, according to AP.
Walnut Grove should reach full inmate capacity by June or July, a staff member said.