- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Attorneys for the state of Mississippi argued in federal court Wednesday that steps have been taken to end inmate-on-inmate violence at a prison in Leake County.

However, advocates for better prison conditions argued it took riots at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in 2013 and 2014 to spur action by the Mississippi Department of Corrections and private operator Management and Training Corp.

Gary E. Friedman, representing the Corrections Department, told a federal judge at the opening of a scheduled three-day hearing that conditions have improved so much that the court should dismiss the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves signed a consent decree pulling juveniles out of Walnut Grove and ordering changes for adult prisoners. The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center say the state and the private contractor haven’t met the order’s terms. They want Reeves to order further changes.

Court monitors say the prison only partially complied with some parts of the decree. MTC argues it’s in substantial compliance.

Margaret Winter, a lawyer for the ACLU, said the MDOC promised to take steps to prevent violence against inmates at Walnut Grove and had failed.

“In three years, MDOC has never yet been in compliance with this consent decree,” Winter said while acknowledging some changes at the facility.

She said that if remedies been in place earlier, the 2013-2014 riots might have been prevented. She said neither MDOC nor MTC took steps before the incidents to better train the staff or address the causes of violence.

Winter said the climate of violence “still hasn’t been cured” at Walnut Grove.

Friedman objected to plaintiffs’ ongoing references to the 2013-2014 riots, which Winter said were being used to show the court MDOC’s pattern of ignoring the consent decree.

Friedman said the plaintiffs were ignoring steps that were taken by MDOC and MTC, including a reduction in the inmate population to about 962, the removal of some of the most dangerous prisoners from the facility and numerous security upgrades. Walnut Grove is now limited to medium- and minimum-security prisoners.

Friedman said several times to Reeves that the judge should consider where the facility is today, not what happened a year ago.

“You can’t try this case because of what occurred,” he said. “We urge the court to look at what the condition of the prison is today. They want to try a facility that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Utah-based Management and Training Corp. took over the 1,500 bed prison in 2012. Juveniles were moved out of the facility in 2010.

Nine inmates were hurt last July in a fight that authorities suggest came after the arrest of a man trying to smuggle contraband into the prison.

A Dec. 31, 2013, fight between two gangs left 16 inmates hurt at the central Mississippi prison.

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