- Associated Press - Friday, July 11, 2014

WALNUT GROVE, Miss. (AP) - A fight that injured nine inmates at a privately run prison in central Mississippi was related to an attempt to bring in banned items, state Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Friday.

Epps said in a statement that the Walnut Grove Police Department arrested one person on contraband charges. A Walnut Grove officer said he didn’t know who was arrested.

Inmates suffered cuts and stab wounds during a fight that broke out about 10 p.m. Thursday among a group of inmates in one of the six housing units, said spokesman Issa Arnita of Utah-based Management & Training Corp., which runs the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility through a state contract.

Epps said of the injured inmates, six had been returned to the prison by Friday afternoon and three remain hospitalized at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Epps said he made a trip on Friday to the prison, which remained on lockdown.

“Fortunately no one was killed,” he said.

Arnita said the prison’s emergency response team used “chemical agents,” and the fight was over after about an hour. He said seven inmates were brought by ambulance to a local hospital. Three were then airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Arnita said the unit where the fight took place houses 240 inmates, and authorities are trying to determine how many prisoners were involved.

Groups suing over prisoner treatment in Mississippi have criticized the state’s hands-off management of MTC, Mississippi’s main private prison contractor.

Walnut Grove has a history of troubles. Most recently, a Dec. 31 fight between two gangs of prisoners injured 16 inmates. Six prison guards and one supervisor were fired or resigned after the December fight, court papers said. Another staff member was placed on administrative leave.

Epps said that since then, the state and MTC have been trying to eliminate contraband such as homemade knives, cellphones and tobacco, and has started a K-9 unit.

“With the security changes we have made, we are hoping to reduce the incidents at Walnut Grove,” he said in the Friday statement.

But court monitors have questioned whether some of those measures will work, noting that contraband appears to mainly be brought in by prison employees. An April report by a monitor for plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit reported high levels of violence, drugs smuggled in and inadequately trained guards.

MTC, which took over operation of the prison in 2012, disputed most of the findings. MTC said the prison “has made great progress in creating a safer environment for offenders and staff.” The company said staff meets state training standards.

The state removed juvenile offenders from Walnut Grove after U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves described conditions as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts” while it was being managed by Florida-based GEO Group.

Reeves’ order came after a Justice Department report charged the state was “deliberately indifferent” to sexual abuse, overuse of force and inadequate medical care for young inmates.

MTC also operates the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian, the Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs and the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in Woodville.

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