3 wrongful death lawsuits and allegations of pocketing state funds hit Utah-based private prison company
Management & Training Corporation, based in Centerville, is accused of hiring ‘ghost workers’ at a Mississippi prison — the company says those claims are without merit
A Utah-based private prison company recently returned more than $5 million after an investigation conducted by the Mississippi state auditor found the prisons it was operating there were understaffed.
And on Wednesday, a trial date was set for a lawsuit filed in federal court accusing the company of understaffing its prisons so badly that it contributed to the death of an inmate, the latest news in three wrongful death suits targeting Management & Training Corporation operations in Mississippi.
Registered in Centerville, MTC voluntarily returned $5.125 million last week in what officials in Mississippi call “one of the largest civil recoveries in the history of the Mississippi Auditor’s Office,” according to a news release.
State Auditor Shad White started investigating MTC in 2021 following allegations that the company was not staffing prisons in accordance to its contract with the state. The auditor’s office claims that MTC was not providing the minimum mandatory staff, but was collecting money from the state as if it had.
“The auditor’s demand accounts for nearly 12,000 unfilled mandatory shifts at the Marshall County facility from 2017 to 2020,” reads a November 2022 press release from the office, where White originally demanded over $1.9 million from MTC.
In July 2021, an inmate at that same facility in Marshall County died after receiving multiple skull fractures and lacerations on his body, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Mississippi. White started his investigation into MTC that same year.
In the complaint, the family of John Henry Baker Lowe Jr. say negligence at the prison led to his death and spell out a similar accusation made by the Mississippi auditor.
“MTC has a long history of failing to meet contractual obligations in its prison. MTC’s prisons are understaffed and often employ ‘ghost workers.’ Ghost workers are absent employees, allowing MTC to ‘pocket’ the state’s money rather than employ an adequate number of staff members to keep the prisons safe,” reads the complaint.
The family claims MTC “negligently hired, supervised and retained its employees and agents,” according to the complaint.
Staff at the prison “had a duty to exercise ordinary care for the inmates,” court documents read. But instead, they “breached that duty by failing to use the ordinary care that a reasonable person would use to avoid and prevent injury.”
In an emailed statement, MTC spokesperson Emily Lawhead said there is no merit to the “ghost worker” claims.
“When staffing was less than optimal, MTC relied on overtime workers and administrative staff to cover posts. MTC also paid required staffing credits under the Marshall contract,” Lawhead said. She would not comment on the pending litigation, but said the company disputes the claim that Lowe’s death was the result of understaffing.
The complaint was filed in June, and on Wednesday a trial date was set for Nov. 4, 2024. MTC no longer manages the prison where Lowe died, and terminated its contract in September 2021, about three months after the incident.
The company’s website lists two correctional facilities operating in Mississippi, the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility and the East Mississippi Correctional Facility.
The East Mississippi facility is the subject of two other wrongful death suits filed in the last 14 months. Both complaints name MTC as the defendant.
In a lawsuit filed in March, the family of Brandon Mitchell says prison staff were alerted to his mental health struggles leading up to his suicide, and that staffing issues at the facility contributed to his death.
“MTC and its employees were aware of (Mitchell’s) mental health diagnosis” the suit claims. “Throughout his stay at EMCF, (Mitchell) experienced numerous mental health episodes which were passed off as attention-seeking behavioral issues, rather than seriously addressing his suicidal ideations and attempts.”
For about a year, according to the complaint, Mitchell was documented harming himself and seeking medical attention. In April 2021, he died by suicide.
“MTC was understaffed on the day (Mitchell) committed suicide,” the complaint reads.
In another wrongful death suit filed in June 2022, the family of Jeremy T. Russell says he fell victim to a similar series of events. Housed at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Russell was suicidal, the complaint claims. But the day before his death, on Oct. 6, 2021, medical staff determined he was “acting out” and “did not exhibit ‘severe mental illness,’” according to court documents.
That same day, Russell’s mother told prison staff he intended to hang himself — the next day, he was found unresponsive, with a bedsheet around his neck, according to the complaint.
“Prison officials failed to uphold the duty of reasonable care under state law. The officials’ principal or employer, MTC, is vicariously liable for their negligence,” the suit reads.
Both suits were filed in U.S. District court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
In an email, Lawhead told the Deseret News the company “disputes the allegation that either suicide resulted from short staffing or other negligence or misconduct on the part of MTC.”
Investigation is ongoing — MTC calls Mississippi auditor allegations ‘false’
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor confirmed MTC was still under investigation.
“We will continue investigating the MTC matter to ensure the amount the company remitted is the full amount they owe the people,” White said in a statement. “Every penny must be accounted for.”
Lawhead called the assertions from the auditor “false” in a statement to the Deseret News.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) was fully aware of the staffing challenges MTC faced, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. MDOC experienced those same challenges with respect to its state-operated facilities. Over the years, MTC has worked cooperatively and in full transparency with MDOC leadership to find solutions to these staffing challenges.”
The company said that the Mississippi Department of Corrections at times would authorize MTC to use contact funds to increase wages and pay for other employee retention programs. According to Lawhead, MTC also “invested millions of dollars into needed capitol improvements to make the facilities more safe and secure for the benefit of staff, inmates, and the community.”
“Unfortunately, the agreements were not documented in writing,” Lawhead said, and now the Mississippi state auditor “has implied MTC withheld funds improperly. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The $5.125 million that MTC returned to Mississippi “reflects the voluntary return of unused labor dollars during periods when repayment was required” by the Mississippi Department of Corrections “based on a good faith analysis and interpretation of what the contracts required during those applicable periods of time.”