Advocates to ask Justice Department to address state prison violence

The Southern Center for Human Rights believes said the 1,600-bed Smith State Prison “is perhaps the most dangerous prison in the state.”

• 21 percent of the 33 prison homicides state wide since 2010 happened at Smith State Prison.

•Three inmates were hospitalized on April 5 for injuries they suffered in a gang-related fight at Smith.

• A year ago, seven ambulances and two helicopters were dispatched to Smith State Prison to care prisoners wounded in inmate-on-inmate attacks.

• DOC records showed there were 262 assaults at Smith State Prison between Aug. 1, 2010, and July 31, 2012, and weapons were used in 134 of those incidents. In those two years, 71 inmates at Smith State Prison had to be taken to local hospitals.

Violence documented in the report from just this year include:

• A bloody fight that apparently started in the yard at Smith State Prison on June 18. Four inmates were taken to hospitals in Savannah and Augusta with multiple stab wounds, including some to the head. Thirteen inmates, including one who was hurt, were charged. Prison officials found homemade knives that were seven to 10 inches long.

• The beating death on March 28 of Jeffrey McDonald, who was found on a shower floor at Central State Prison.

• The Feb. 17 attacks on Xavier Daniels and Ronnie Wilson, who were sleeping in their cell at Smith State Prison. Daniels was tied to his bed, beaten and stabbed 59 times. Wilson was stabbed in his hand and side. Homemade knives of six inches and seven inches were found. According to the DOC report, the attack was classified as a “minor” incident.

• The stabbing death on Feb. 12 of Cristian Bailon, who was in segregation. According to DOC records, Bailon’s attackers used a nine-inch piece of metal fencing to attack him.

• An attack on Ariel Ocasio on Feb. 6 at Wilcox State Prison. Records show another inmate used a machete to cut off three of Ocasio’s fingers.

• The 3rd degree burns on an inmate at the privately run Coffee Correctional Facility in January. The report said the inmate was bound with tape and beaten with a bar and then bleach was poured in his eyes and boiling water was poured on his face and genitals.

A federal investigation is being sought into Georgia’s prisons, which an advocacy group calls “dangerously unsafe” for inmates, corrections officers and ultimately the public upon the release of offenders who have spent years living in that environment.

“Prison officials have lost control,” the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights wrote in a report seeking a Department of Justice investigation into conditions at Georgia’s 31 state prisons.

Thousands of inmates are release annually; 21,000 of Georgia’s 55,000 inmates were freed last year.

“Many of those (inmates) living at these trouble prisons are coming out to live among us,” Geraghty said. “It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that prisons are well managed and conditions are reasonably safe.”

In an email Friday, Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said DOC knew the request for a federal investigation had been made and she confirmed prison officials had read the Southern Center report that was the basis for it.

“The Department has implemented a plan to harden (high security) facilities throughout the state of Georgia,” Hogan wrote without specifically responding to the issues the Southern Center raised. “We continue to review, monitor and enforce policies related to the operation of safe and secure facilities throughout our prisons to ensure we carry out our non-negotiable mission of protecting the public, our staff and the inmates.”

Sarah Geraghty, senior attorney at the Southern Center, told the Justice Department prison violence is escalating.

“We are receiving reports of prisoner-on-prisoners stabbings and beatings on a near-daily basis…The violence in Georgia’s prisons has also grown increasingly brutal in recent months,” Geraghty wrote.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, which advocates for prisoner rights, has documented dozens of incidents since 2010, including the deaths of 33 inmates and one correctional officer and many more prisoners seriously injured.

The Southern Center complained to the Justice Department that it had made repeated attempts since 2012 to discuss prison violence with Corrections officials, but no one from DOC responded. The center also said no DOC officials attended a legislative hearing in April during which relatives testified about the deaths of five inmates at the hands of other prisoners. “The GDC has shown a pattern of apathy in the face security breaches and a failure to respond to known dangerous conditions,” Geraghty wrote.

The violence in prison also means correctional officers are in danger, Geraghty said.

“Correctional officers … have an incredibly difficult job and the state needs to make sure they are reasonably protected when they come to work,” Geraghty said.

Gangs, the Southern Center said, operate freely inside cell blocks.

The most recent death in the Georgia prison system was on June 29. Shannon Grier was stabbed to death at Augusta State Medical Prison little more than a month after another inmate in segregation left his cell to stab to death Durante Smith with a "long metal shank," according to the Southern Center.

“Men in maximum security facilities have access to lethal weapons including knives, shanks and machetes,” the Southern Center wrote in its report. “Cell door locks are left broken for years. Prisoners at some (high) security prisons are left largely unsupervised. Gangs control inmate housing assignments and expel inmates they no longer want in their dorms. Prisoners have cell phones and smart phones that they use to extort money from the family members of other prisoners.”