Expert calls prison isolation unit ‘draconian’

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classifcation Prison near Jackson houses 2,500 inmates.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classifcation Prison near Jackson houses 2,500 inmates.

Conditions in the state prison system’s isolation unit are the “harshest and most draconian” of any in the country and it puts inmates at risk of “irreversible and even fatal harm,” according to an expert hired to appraise the special unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison.

The report, written by nationally-recognized expert Craig Haney, was requested after a prisoner filed a federal lawsuit claiming his treatment inside the isolation unit has been inhumane. Three more prisoners followed with suits of their own.

Based on Haney’s report, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights asked a federal judge on Tuesday to require the Department of Corrections to take immediate steps to remedy conditions that put inmates at “grave risk of harm.”

The lawsuits describe the same conditions inside the “special management units” reserved for prisoners who are deemed to be disciplinary problems: Strict isolation from other inmates and staff, no outside light and no access to reading materials, television or visitors.

Haney characterized Georgia’s isolation unit as “one of the harshest and most draconian … facilities I have seen in operation anywhere in the country,” and its prisoners as “among the most psychologically traumatized persons I have ever assessed in this context.”

One lawsuit described the confinement as an unconstitutional “torture technique.”

Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center, wrote that it was possible a resolution could be reached with the corrections department, but steps needed to be taken right away.

Haney's entire report has been sealed while attorneys and the state negotiate what can be made public and what must be redacted. But portions of that report were included in an motion asking the judge for a conference to discuss the status of a lawsuit that was first filed as a hand-written complaint by inmate Timothy Gumm. Gumm, serving a life sentence for rape, filed his lawsuit in February 2015, after he had already spent more than five years in the special unit.

Gumm's suit was later taken on by the Southern Center. Two other prisoners filed similar lawsuits, which are on hold while Gumm's case proceeds. A fourth suit was brought by an attorney representing a fourth inmate.

All four inmates who have sued have asked the federal court in Macon to treat their suits as a class action so any resolution that benefits Gumm would apply to all the men housed in the isolation unit.

Haney also wrote in the released excerpt: “The unusually severe and deprived conditions, practices and procedures that exist at (the SMU), the uncertainty prisoners experience over whether and how they can obtain or hasten their release, the very long duration of the SMU sentences that prisoners are required to serve and the disproportionate number of mentally ill prisoners who are housed in this unit represent a truly toxic and extremely dangerous combination of factors and forces.’ Dr. Haney also offers the dire warning that that individuals now in the SMU remain ‘at grave risk of harm,’ which ‘may be irreversible and even fatal.’”

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on pending litigation.

But even as the two sides compile evidence and depose witnesses, Geraghty has asked the state Department of Corrections to make some immediate changes to the isolation unit. She asked to increase the time inmates are allowed out of their cells and to limit inmate stays inside the two most restrictive wings to 14 days. She also asked that all inmates inside the special unit undergo psychological evaluations and that those already suffering “adverse psychological effects” be removed.

The prison system uses a "tier program," to assign various degrees of isolation to discipline trouble inmates. The "special management unit" (SMU) was meant for almost 200 of the prison's most dangerous inmates. Cell doors are solid metal and have small, grated windows that are blocked by a sliding metal cover.

After he was implicated in an escape attempt plot at Telfair State Prison, Gumm spent more than seven years in a 7-foot by 13-foot cell in the special unit with no outside air or sunlight.

Although he was later cleared in the escape attempt, for a long while, Gumm remained in SMU where he had no contact with anyone other than a correctional officer who slid a food tray through a slot in the metal door.

After the first 90 days, SMU inmates can leave their cells for extremely limited periods of time, Gumm’s lawsuit said.

“Phases” of SMU allow inmates slightly more freedom, such as four 15-minute phone calls a month, out-of-cell showers while still handcuffed and shackled or time in an exercise pen twice a week. SMU inmates initially get no visitors though they can eventually earn “no contact” visits with family.

Five months after Gumm filed his lawsuit, armed robber and kidnapper Fred Dalton Brooks brought his own complaint, making the same allegations. Brooks had been in SMU almost 3 1/2 years when he filed his suit in July 2015.

Inmate Tamarkus Wright, serving life for armed robbery, filed his handwritten suit in November 2016, more than four years after he was placed in SMU.

An attorney for Miguel Jackson, in prison until 2048 for armed robbery, filed a federal lawsuit in Macon last January, alleging the inmate he was placed in SMU seven years earlier in retaliation for filing a lawsuit accusing officers of beating him.

Facts on the Georgia Diagnostic prison:

  • The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison is a "close security" facility that holds almost 2,500 inmates near Jackson and just 50 miles south of Atlanta.
  • It's where inmates entering the prison system are initially housed until they can receive a permanent assignment. It is also where Georgia's Death Row is located and where lethal injections are carried out.
  • GDCP is the only prison with a special management unit. Eight other facilities have similar but less-restrictive units for troubled inmates — the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville and Hays, Hancock Macon, Valdosta, Telfair, Smith and Ware State Prisons.