Will push to lock up Georgia gang members make prisons more violent?

Self-proclaimed gang members participate in a Project Safe Neighborhood class, which assists in reform, at the Metro Reentry Facility, part of the Georgia Department of Corrections, near Atlanta on March 11, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

One bad day late last year, an inmate at a Middle Georgia prison scrawled out a six-page letter, addressed to state officials and “anyone who can help.”

The man, serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder in the late 1990s, told a story of gang members running an illegal shank sales operation in the prison, the stabbings that followed, and the fear that followed in him when he thought of what one of the blades would feel like jammed into his flesh. He asked for administrative segregation — to limit the scant freedom he had in life — so that he might live longer.

His mother, Brenda Reichert, who asked that her son’s name not be revealed for fear of reprisal, has been paying close attention to efforts by Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration to go after gangs in Georgia. Back in 2018, Reichert, 66, of Henry County voted for Kemp, but now she’s frustrated by what she sees as his administration’s failure to get a handle on gang issues in the state prisons.

Reichert said her son is “just gonna get killed down there,” adding that he’s remorseful for the crime that sent him to prison and simply wants to serve his sentence without being attacked by gangs. “I pray from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed: Dear Lord, keep him safe.”

She fears Kemp's vow to see more gang members prosecuted will only exacerbate gang problems in Georgia's penitentiaries by sending more gang members into the system and, of course, the prison where her son is held. Other critics of Kemp's anti-gang efforts say they have the same concern. It's simple math, they say: gang members + prisons dogged by gang violence = prisons dogged by more gang violence.

Ahmed Holt, assistant commissioner of the Department of Corrections’ Facilities Division, said he and others in the state agency recognize there’s work to be done to curb gang issues in the prisons. That’s why they’ve implemented multiple programs, including Gang Departure Inc., an initiative to help incarcerated gang members change. It started two years ago in Hancock and Lee state prisons. Holt said there are plans to move it across the state’s 34 prisons, but he couldn’t say when.

Ahmed Holt, assistant commissioner of the Facilities Division of the Georgia Department of Corrections, speaks about in-house programs available for self-proclaimed gang members during a visit to the Metro Reentry Facility near Atlanta on March 11, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

“If we rush this program, we may not get it right,” Holt said during a recent interview.

Time and again, he assured: the Department of Corrections is committed to safety — and Kemp’s anti-gang efforts.

Kemp has repeatedly said Georgia is in the midst of a gang “crisis” that must be stomped out for the safety of residents. “These organized crime units are flooding our streets with weapons, drugs, violence, and fear,” Kemp said in his 2020 State of the State address. “They are ripping apart the fabric of our communities.”

LONGTIME PROBLEM

Gangs and prisons have long been intertwined, but they’ve become more connected in recent years as technology makes it faster and easier to transfer information. Inmate gang leaders in Georgia are periodically found to be directing crime on the streets, including drug trafficking and, in several cases, murders.

One gang, the Ghost Face Gangsters, for example, particularly has a history of running operations from behind bars, law enforcement officials have said. In a 2018 survey of local police and sheriffs around Georgia, most agencies who said they were worried by gang activity in their area also said the Ghost Face Gangsters were the gang of most concern. One incarcerated member of the group, along with an unaffiliated accomplice, is accused of killing two prison guards on a transport bus in 2017 in Putnam County, then leading officers on a manhunt lasting 60-plus hours. In February, five purported members of the gang were arrested on murder charges in the home invasion death of a 14-year-old girl in Coweta County.

There are also the attacks inside the prisons, such as in January, when investigators said five Al Burruss Prison inmates strapped a man down, placed a rag over his face and waterboarded him.

The Department of Corrections estimates that it houses 15,000 gang members. The prison system has 52,000 inmates in total. In the last five years, authorities say, the gang members have been responsible for 1,700 assaults in Georgia prisons.

When inmates arrive at state prison, they are put through a screening process that, among other things, assesses whether they are gang members. Belonging to a gang can affect which prison an inmate is assigned to and where that inmate will be housed in that prison. Gang members from Atlanta have historically been sent to South Georgia, and vice versa, to limit their access to outside contacts, according to Sherman Maine, a former captain at the Valdosta State Prison who won an unrelated whistleblower lawsuit against the prison system.

Self-proclaimed gang members participate in a Project Safe Neighborhood class, which assists in reform, at the Metro Reentry Facility, part of the Georgia Department of Corrections, in south DeKalb County on March 11, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

Maine said inmates who come in with no gang affiliation often leave with one. They face a terrible choice: join for protection on the inside and be labeled a gang member, or don’t join and risk becoming a victim of prison violence. Some who join become entrenched in the lifestyle, Maine said. This could apply to small-time gang members who are sent to prison in the new anti-gang push, as well as to people who have no interest in gangs.

“If you come to prison innocent, you don’t stay that way,” Maine said in a recent interview. “Before, they didn’t know how to make meth or how to seek out the cartels. They make those contacts in prison.”

In Maine’s experience, the prisons don’t have enough guards. That, combined with the Kemp administration’s push to incarcerate more gang members, will cause serious problems, Maine said.

“I think it’s going to blow up in their face,” he said. “It sounds good, locking up more gang members. But if you’re going to do it, you better have a well-thought-out plan. I don’t think they have one.”

NEW PROGRAMS

Holt, the assistant commissioner, said there is a plan.

Shortly after Kemp took office, the Department of Corrections started working on the prison gang problem by instituting an “evidence-based” program at Hancock State Prison and then Lee State Prison. The programs are prison-wide and allow inmates to take classes with titles such as “Peace,” “Understanding Self,” “Managing Anger” and, importantly, “Gang Renunciation.”

Holt said some inmates have been transferred from other prisons in the state so they can take advantage of the courses.

So far 130 men have graduated from the program.

A conversation ball is used during a Project Safe Neighborhood class, which assists in reform for self-proclaimed gang members at the Metro Reentry Facility, part of the Georgia Department of Corrections, near Atlanta on March 11, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

As part of the initiative, gang apostates are separated from their former brothers in arms, residing in their own dorm units. Interactions are limited and closely monitored, Holt maintains.

“We are committed to safety,” he said.

At Hancock State Prison, figures provided by the Department of Corrections suggest that gang-related assaults have fallen since the program started in 2018. In 2017, the prison saw 29 assaults. In 2018, it was 9, then 13 in 2019. Lee State Prison hasn’t seen a decline in gang assaults.

‘THINK BIG’

At Metro Reentry Facility in south DeKalb County, the Department of Corrections also runs a gang rehabilitation program.

The exterior of the Metro Reentry Facility, part of the Georgia Department of Corrections, in south DeKalb County. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Holt invited The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to observe the class to get an idea of the type of work corrections officials are doing to address the prison gang issue. Reporters were not allowed to speak to the inmates or to learn about their identities.

The other day, about two dozen men sat in plastic folding chairs arranged in a circle in a white-tiled room and talked about reformation. From a workbook, they read aloud a lesson about NBA star and philanthropist LeBron James. The lesson focused on his work ethic, how he has a routine for before, during and after the game to keep himself healthy.

Self-proclaimed gang members read aloud during a Project Safe Neighborhood class, which assists in reform, at the Metro Reentry Facility, part of the Georgia Department of Corrections, in south DeKalb County on March 11, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

Drawing from James’ example, a counselor brought in by the Offender Alumni Association encouraged the men to stay focused on changing their lives.

“You’ve got to think big,” he said. “Don’t set any limitations on what you can do when you get out.”

Another counselor reminded the men there would be temptations when they walk free. In their old neighborhoods, old friends might want to see them return to old ways.

One young man, nearing the end of his second prison stint, spoke up.

“They know not to come at me with that,” the inmate said. “They see how much I value my freedom.”

In Other News