Advocates to ask Justice Department to address state prison violence

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.”

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