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State says it will seek other uses for just-closed prison

Mississippi’s prison system says it will seek some other use for the just-closed Walnut Grove Correctional Facility.

The facility had been run by private companies — most recently Utah-based Management and Training Corp. — but is owned by a public authority. Bond documents issued in July show the state still owes almost $94 million that was borrowed to build and expand the prison.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections, which closed the Leake County prison Thursday after moving 900 prisoners elsewhere, said Monday that it was considering using the facility as an alternative to prison, as a facility to house prisoners after parole violations, or to help prisoners prepare to re-enter society.

“We do not intend for the Walnut Grove site to go unused,” Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher said in a statement. “Just as we have formed a partnership with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health to assist us in supervising mentally ill inmates both inside and outside prison, we are strongly pursuing other ways to help inmates re-enter their communities in a meaningful way and remain out of prison.”

The department created technical violation centers, meant as an alternative to sending parolees back to a regular prison for a minor parole violation, as part of an effort to cut the number of inmates. The prison system now runs technical violation centers in Rankin, Leflore, and Simpson counties.

The department said it could also consider uses to help its 3,000-plus inmates with mental illness and its 15,000-plus inmates who report drug and alcohol abuse.

Walnut Grove Mayor Brian Gomillion said the town would welcome use of the prison, which had more than 200 employees before it closed.

“This surprise is welcome that MDOC perhaps has a purpose for the facility,” Gomillion said. “Any positive use for the facility is Walnut Grove is good for our community.”

Walnut Grove collected $180,000 in payments in lieu of property taxes and $600,000 in water, sewer and gas utility payments. The prison’s closure cut the 1,900-resident town’s $1.5 million budget in half, and Gomillion said town residents are now having to pay to maintain a water tower and utility lines the prison is no longer using.

Fisher said closing the prison was meant to save money and had nothing to do with past abuses against inmates at Walnut Grove and was announced before the U.S. Justice Department’s recent decision to phase out the use of private prisons to hold federal prisoners. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued over abuses to juveniles, hailed the prison’s closure.

“MDOC’s decision to close Walnut Grove is in no way connected to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision nor is the closure the result of any advocacy group’s ‘victory’,” Fisher said.

Juveniles were removed, but high assault rates and problems with supervision of inmates persisted until the state removed maximum-security prisoners. The state had argued in recent months that conditions had improved enough to allow the prison to emerge from the oversight of U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves.

Management and Training Corp. still operates three other prisons for Mississippi — Marshall County Correctional Facility, East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian, and Wilkinson County Correctional Facility.


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