After years of scandal and turmoil that landed it on the list of the 10 worst prisons in the United States, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility closed its gates for the final time in September 2016.
A federal judge described the facility as a “scene of horror” and a place “run by gangs in collusion with corrupt prison guards” in announcing a 2012 settlement order. Even the mayor of the town of Walnut Grove, who had been hired as the warden of the prison, contributed to the scandalous reputation of the facility. Former Mayor William Grady Sims was sentenced to federal prison in 2012 after he had checked a female inmate into a hotel in Carthage and, when caught, urged her to lie about it to federal investigators. He lost both jobs and served 7 months after a plea bargain.
The systemic corruption of the entire state prison system came to a head with the conviction and 20-year sentence of then-Commissioner Chris Epps for bribery and extortion.
Burl Cain, the newest commissioner, was appointed in May 2020. Cain brought with him several new ideas that he had experimented with during his 21 years as warden of Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Prison. “Moral rehabilitation” was the primary goal he sought to bring into the lives of even the most hardened criminals and apostate inmates.
“To make prisons work, you want morality first and foremost,” he told a Vicksburg audience in early August. “Morality comes quicker in religion than anywhere else in a prison environment.”
His prescription is to train inmates who already have a high school education to be ministers through a formal seminary program with an accredited school of religion. He has worked with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the past. After formal training, the new ministers would establish a church within the prison and recruit membership from among the general population.
To enroll in the seminary, inmates sign contracts and accept the curriculum for four years. When these students graduate, they are expected to “plant a church inside the prison,” Cain said.
“When they plant their church,” he said, “they’re going to be the preacher and they’re going to teach them (inmates) morality, the Golden Rule and the 10 Commandments.”
Cain has seen positive results from the programs already underway at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl for women and at Parchman for men.
Cain was able to get the support of Ruth Graham, the daughter of the late Billy Graham. A pastor in her own right, she has been teaching a course on “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” She appears in the prison classrooms each week via videoconference and offers her lessons that are more given to “transformation” than “reformation.”
Violence at Parchman was down over 52 percent during the first year of the program, Cain reported.
Cain’s critics say that standards of morality and moral rehabilitation should apply to everyone—-even the new commissioner.
Cain, while warden of Angola in 2015, was accused of using corrections employees to do work at his private residence. A 2017 audit of his work affairs at Angola also revealed that he allegedly received thousands of dollars in free benefits and perks for his relatives. He resigned from Angola in 2016, but Mississippi’s search committee, headed by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, did not let Cain’s apparent missteps stand in the way of including him on their list of finalists for the MDOC job.
“I was personally aware of the allegations,” Gov. Tate Reeves said. “We did extensive research, and it seems like that once the politics were removed the accusations were basically dropped.”
WALNUT GROVE REOPENING
Long before Cain came onto the state’s radar as a possible prison commissioner, the push to reopen Walnut Grove was a recurring and longstanding concern in certain official circles.
Officials and laymen alike in the town and surrounding areas of Leake County pointed out the big loss to the local economy when the shutdown occurred in 2016. Although the town had only 400 residents at the time, as opposed to 765 today, 300 of them worked at Walnut Grove. The shutting down of “the Grove” took away $675,000 from the town and surrounding area each year, a local audit reported. There were several serious suggestions to shut down the more notorious Parchman and transfer those inmates to a reopened Walnut Grove.
Still, there are many Leake County residents who dread the resurrection of the Walnut Grove prison.
“It shouldn’t be here,” says Gwen Barton-Reid, who lives in the Truelight community just outside the town limits of Walnut Grove. “Nobody should be working there.”
There were more people in prison than in the surrounding community, she said.
Barton-Reid worked for more than 30 years in prison systems, both federal and local. And she disagrees with current Walnut Grove Mayor Brian Gomillion, who said, “When the prison closed, the town died.”
“Before we had a prison there, it was a private community,” Reid says. “The prison takes the jobs from the free world people. They give the prisoners the town’s sanitation jobs. That in itself is a bad element. Who wants convicts riding around casing their house every week??
WILL IT WORK?
Cain says it will take up to 10 years for the seminary program to become “institutionalized” inside the prison system.
After the inmate seminarians-preachers are released, they will be able to change the culture of the urban area where they live. As an example, he brought some of the paroled inmates from Angola to be chaplains at the Mississippi facilities.
“They’re more effective than a free-world chaplain that has never been in a prison before,” Cain said
Cain pointed out that the traditional trades and skills are also taught to inmates in addition to the seminary program.
Gwen Barton-Reid says most inmates will not fit into the kind of training program proposed by Cain.
“I feel he needs to re-establish the law library inside the prison that was taken out in 1997,” she says. “That’s more important than a prison ministry. The prison ministry program has been around since the first prison. So that’s nothing new. People talk about it. But let’s also talk about how they’re going to re-establish the law library so people can get their appeals and other things done.”
A plan for the reopening of Walnut Grove was announced earlier this year with July 15 as the target date to begin moving personnel into the facility. In March, Cain announced on Supertalk Mississippi radio that August and September would be critical dates in the process, and that the first group of inmates would be moved into the facility by early October. MDOC has not returned calls from the Jackson Advocate over the last two weeks seeking confirmation of the announced move-in dates. #
Walnut Grove in 2012. (Picture courtesy of Mother Jones Magazine)