1.5 hours east of Jackson, Walnut Grove is a town in a town defined by a triangular strip. I stop into the drugstore to get some gum and take a leak, the pharmacist says, “we don’t have any sugarless gum and you can use the bathroom at the doctor’s office next door…they don’t mind.” It is a very small town. The only industry here besides the prison is a Tyson chick breeding plant. Walnut Grove facility is for juveniles sentenced as adults. There are 1,225 youths aged anywhere between 14 and 22.
There are 1000 beds here, but a guard says there are 1300 kids here now. These are the more serious offenders. Cornell, a private security system, runs it. The buildings are warehouse style, slab sided aluminum dotted with horizontal windows running about three feet from the roof line. I walk up near the building and am approached by a guard who asks my business and then escorts me to see the deputy warden, who explains security concerns and suggests strongly that it would be better it I photographed from the road. I leave my card and do that. While I am trying to photograph, a very young dark haired woman passes and then returns, passes again and when she returns she cheerily asks, “what are y’all doin?” I explain to her that I spoke to the dept. warden and have been O.Ked to shoot from the road. She responds, “I know, they sent me out here to get y’alls plate info.” Have a nice day y’all hear. A few minutes later a white pick-up truck appears with another private security guard. He drives up the grass to the other side of the road and asks the nature of my business. I shout to him that I had spoken to the deputy warden and I was OK where I was, on my side of the road. He asks again what I was taking pictures for and I tell him, I explained to the warden… and he drives off. Not quite the traditional “southern hospitality” one might have expected.
The director of Oakley Training School, James Maccarone, introduces himself along with the extended overview of the facilities speech. He prefaces this by asking me to “turn off the tape recorder”….I had just switched my phone to vibrate to not interrupt. This clouds my response to the Director, I confess, and I am less receptive after he makes this erroneous assumption. I am not allowed to photograph the inside of the facility, but I can take pictures from the outside. He begins his talk, telling me the kids are held here for anywhere from 3-4 weeks up to a maximum of 52-64. “We make sure they have gotten all their shots and are up to date with their inoculations. We have their teeth checked.” Many have not seen a dentist in years. They do routine cleanings, fillings, even root canals. The kids get 2500-3000 calories per day. They complain, but it is mostly about the vegetables and the lack of spice on the food, but there are usually empty plates. They get three meals and a snack, daily. They wake up between 6-6:30, School is from 8-3:30, then they have counseling or recreation until dinner, counseling or recreation again after dinner and then to bed… and it starts over. They live in a division of cottages–divided between upper and lower schools and older and younger. There is one honor cottage that can do public service work off campus with supervision. I photograph across the road where there is a herd of black steers under a tree shading from the midday sun of Mississippi. The cows are fenced in and look to be in excellent shape and I can’t help thinking that someone talking about the steers would begin by saying, “We make sure they have gotten all their shots and are up to date with their inoculations, we have their teeth checked.”