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Groups say deal reached in juvenile prison lawsuit

Holbrook Mohr, Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- A proposed settlement of a lawsuit would prohibit minors in Mississippi from being held in solitary confinement and would require corrections officials to move youth out of a privately run prison where there were allegations of sexual and physical abuse.

The 2010 lawsuit claimed that some guards at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility smuggled drugs into the prison, had sex with some inmates, assaulted others and put some in solitary confinement. The lawsuit was filed in November 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and Jackson attorney Robert McDuff, It also claimed inmates weren't given proper medical care or educational opportunities, among other things.

Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility opened in 2001 in Leake County and holds inmates ages 13-22 who were minors convicted as adults. It's operated by GEO Group Inc., the second largest private prison company in the country.

The proposed deal would require the Mississippi Department of Corrections to move the underage prisoners to a facility governed by juvenile justice standards. It's not clear how many inmates would be affected.

A federal judge must approve the agreement, known as a consent decree. A hearing is scheduled for March 22 in U.S. District Court in Jackson.

A Mississippi corrections official didn't immediately respond to questions Monday. Pablo Paez, a GEO spokesman, said Monday that the company doesn't comment on litigation.

The advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit said the settlement, if approved, would be the first time a federal court has banned the practice of housing youth in long-term isolation.

Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a statement that the ban on solitary confinement for young people would be "truly unprecedented."

"It's been known for a long time that prolonged solitary confinement causes terrible suffering and psychiatric breakdown even in mature healthy adults — let alone in emotionally vulnerable children and teenagers," she said.

Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for SPLC, said in a statement that the deal "represents a sea change in the way MDOC will treat children in its custody."

"As a result of this litigation, Mississippi's children will no longer languish in an abusive, privately operated prison that profits each time a young man is tried as an adult and ends up behind bars," she said.