Critics blast Georgia prison conditions, staffing levels and care

A legislator calls the system “an abject failure”
Lee Arrendale State Prison near Alto.

Lee Arrendale State Prison near Alto.

The middle-aged prisoner, 17 years into a life sentence at Baldwin State, said he fears each day may be his last. You’re on your own if you dare run afoul of the wrong person, he said.

“The biggest challenge here is staying alive,” said the prisoner, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. His murder conviction is under appeal, he said, but he worries he won’t be around to see it through.

“You gotta be on point all of the time,” he said. “You can’t count on the guards to protect you.”

In June, prisoner Jose Garcia-Ibrra died at Baldwin, according to a report in The Milledgeville Union-Recorder. The Georgia Department of Corrections confirmed his death was under investigation but has released no other information about the case.

The homicide count at all GDC facilities stands at 18 for the year, including six in July, according to news reports and the prison reform group “They Have No Voice,” which maintains a database. The GDC didn’t respond to requests for that information, which was once accessible on its website. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also reached out to the governor’s office, which deferred to the GDC.

Data available prior to 2021 show that in 2017, the GDC reported four homicides. Last year, the number was 26.

“They need to get more guards in here,” the Baldwin prisoner told the AJC. Baldwin is located in Hardwick, near Milledgeville.

It’s not just that facility feeling the strain. A riot that broke out nearly one year ago at Waycross’ Ware State Prison was blamed on a lack of personnel.

“We are too short-staffed to safely run the prison,” Danyelle Campos, a guard at Ware for nine months, wrote in her resignation letter following the riots. “Too many officers are being put in unnecessary risk and nothing is being done.”

The former health services administrator at Autry State Prison in Pelham told the AJC last September that facility often had just one security officer for every 40 prisoners.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed in June on behalf of prisoner Marcus Hayes, who in 2019 hanged himself at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, alleges “severe understaffing at GDC facilities has contributed to its failure to (prevent) suicides.” Last year there were 29 suicides, according to the GDC, nearly triple the total in 2017 and among the highest rates in the nation.

A 10% pay raise, which took root in April, was intended to stem the rising turnover among the security staff. But to fund the pay raise, the GDC agreed not to fill any of its vacant positions. The department’s budget for 2022 totals $1.1 billion, $82.9 million less than in 2020.

In the GDC’s fiscal year 2020 report, the department reported 608 fewer officers last year than in 2019, with a 44% turnover.

“Retention of corrections officers continues to be a challenge for the GDC,” the FY 2020 report says. In that same report, GDC Commissioner Timothy Ward spoke favorably of the department’s performance.

“Highlights of our successes include our continued commitment to the operation of safe and secure facilities, developing and retaining a quality workforce, and helping set the stage for success for our offender population,” Ward said. His office did not respond to an interview request.

‘Human rights crisis’

Requests for information sometimes draw no response and rarely a timely one, said State Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Atlanta).

“When we don’t exercise meaningful oversight over the (Department of Corrections) you get the year 2020,” he said in a speech on the House floor earlier this year. “You get record numbers of homicides, suicides, riots … you get understaffing that causes just walking down the hallway to be unsafe. We have a human rights crisis in our prisons but the state is hardly paying attention.”

Last month, the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a follow-up letter to Lee Arrendale State Prison’s Warden Murray Tatum outlining “the horrific conditions of confinement that persist” at the women’s facility in Alto. The first letter was sent in April.

“Women at Arrendale live in filthy cells with defective plumbing and electricity and receive limited access to cleaning and hygiene supplies,” the center said in a statement. “Chronic understaffing results in poor medical care, unchecked violence, and insufficient meal portions.”

Food is inedible and scarce, the facility’s water supply is brown and contaminated, and conditions can be harrowing, the statement continued.

“Women who have just given birth are sometimes sent to Arrendale wearing clothing soaked with afterbirth fluid and blood and not given clean clothes for days on end,” the statement said. “One mother was forced to remove her own vaginal stitches with a toenail clipper after developing an infection that was left untreated, despite her repeated and frantic requests for medical attention.”

Atteeyah Hollie, a senior lawyer with the center, said they’ve still received no response.

“It speaks to the level of indifference (from the GDC),” Hollie said. “We are beyond the crisis point here.”

Dire warnings

According to the Southern Center, two-thirds of Arrendale’s positions remain unfilled. Sherman Maine, a former Valdosta State prison captain who remains in touch with many of his old colleagues, said that’s true in almost all state correction facilities. Safety concerns have led to shortages elsewhere, he said.

The GDC website lists 121 openings within the Corrections division for jobs including entry level officers, deputy wardens and criminal investigators. Nearly 200 positions remain unfilled in the counseling, educational and food service fields, according to the agency.

“Three things will raise tensions with prisoners,” Maine said. “When they don’t feel safe, when they don’t feel they’re getting adequate health care and when the food is not edible. We’re seeing all of that right now.”

Maine is among those who say a federal takeover of Georgia’s prisons is warranted. It wouldn’t be unprecedented.

In 1982, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Alaimo essentially took control of Reidsville State Prison, then recognized as one of the nation’s most dangerous and poorly run corrections facilities. Stabbings were routine, driven often by racial animus.

It would take 25 years and more than $100 million in taxpayer dollars before Alaimo returned the South Georgia prison to state control.

McLaurin also calls for federal intervention, saying, “It’s hard to overstate what an abject failure this agency has become.”