Jerry Mitchell                         August 2, 2009

originally published — Clarion Ledger Jackson, Mississippi

What originally was designed as a prison for Mississippi juvenile offenders as young as 12 is now packed with inmates in their early 20s.

Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility held 321 offenders in 2001, none of them older than 18. It has since swelled to 1,225, holding offenders until they’re nearly 22.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said the reason the Walnut Grove population is expanding is the same reason all prison populations are expanding – Mississippi’s truth in sentencing law.

In 1995, lawmakers passed the act, which requires offenders to serve 85 percent of their time. At that time, the prison population was 12,007, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections budget was $119 million.

Today, even after tweaking by lawmakers to reduce the number of inmates, the population has almost doubled to 21,832, and the budget is now $345 million.

“Our numbers keep going up,” Epps said. “That’s what has caused us to expand.”

The reason for operating Walnut Grove is to “keep our young people separate from habitual criminals,” he said.

Before Walnut Grove, those kids might wind up in prison with inmates in their 40s, he said. “The average age of inmates entering prison is 35.”

But keeping juveniles in the same facility with that many adults worries some.

“We are greatly concerned that juveniles are being held with adult offenders,” said Kristen Levins, staff attorney for the Mississippi Youth Justice Project. “Housing youth in adult facilities has many inherent dangers – including an increased risk of sexual victimization and physical assault.”

A national study has found that juveniles held in adult prisons are 34 percent more likely to repeat their crimes than those convicted of similar offenses and kept in the juvenile system.

Beginning in the 1980s, states began passing laws aimed at getting tough on juvenile crime, including the transfer of juveniles into adult courts and prisons.

Under Mississippi law, juveniles 13 or older are automatically tried as adults if charged with murder, rape or armed robbery. They’re also automatically transferred if they use a deadly weapon in a felony.

Kathy Pittman, director of the division of youth services for the state Department of Human Services, said the law needs to be examined and possibly changed. “We need to have early intervention to turn these lives around,” she said.

Liz Ryan, president and CEO for the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, sees problems with making the transfers of juveniles automatic. “We should let the judges determine this, especially when you’re talking about something that has a lifelong consequence,” she said.

Not all juveniles behind bars in adult prisons are there for violent crimes. For instance, 15-year-old Marcus Jammar Hinson is now serving a 15-year prison sentence at Walnut Grove for residential burglary.

Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome said the issue needs to be studied and debated before any sweeping changes are made.

“We’ve had 12-year-olds commit heinous crimes,” he said. “The juvenile system as a whole is not really equipped to handle those cases. It’s not the same as somebody who is knocking over mailboxes.”

Claiborne Henderson, now 25, served time at the Walnut Grove from September 2003 to January 2005 on a kidnapping conviction.

Shortly after he arrived there, he remembers several buses of inmates arriving from Parchman. “That made the facility so bad. You had guys who’d been at Parchman for several years, and suddenly they’re together with kids.”

He and others found their refuge in education at the facility, he said. “If you’re willing to go and learn, they’ll teach you.”

Henderson attended classes five days a week and got his GED. He also completed four of five vocational courses.

When he first got there, the management allowed each prison zone to form teams for basketball, football and softball, he said. Rewards included watching the Super Bowl and movies, he said. “They treated us like kids.”

But when management changed in 2004, that all came to an end, he said. “They treated you like you were on maximum security lockdown.”

Henderson is now attending Hinds Community College, studying electrical technology, and has a 3.0 GPA.

Ryan said keeping adults in the same facility is not only unwise, it’s unsafe.

A recent study by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission found juveniles in adult prisons are at “extreme risk” of being sexually assaulted. For this reason alone, juveniles shouldn’t be housed in prisons with adults, Ryan said.

“What we have found nationwide is most adult jails and prisons are not equipped to handle juveniles,” she said. “They’re not focused on rehabilitation. They’re not geared toward the young people who are there.”

The public strongly supports rehabilitation for juveniles, she said. “They don’t like the idea of putting kids in adult jails and prison. If they’re put in cells with adults for 10 or 15 years, that’s the wrong kind of mentoring.”

Christine Henderson, a community advocate for the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, works with families whose children are incarcerated at Walnut Grove.

The system is unfortunately putting these children in the same prison with hardened criminals, she said. “These big-town drug dealers are teaching these young babies to be criminals. It starts the cycle.”