Georgia prisons ‘beyond the crisis point’

Critics say federal intervention needed
Carrington Frye (center) was killed in Macon State Prison in March 2020 during a fight over a contraband cellphone. (Family photo courtesy of Jennifer Bradley)

Credit: Jennifer Bradley (for the AJC)

Credit: Jennifer Bradley (for the AJC)

Carrington Frye (center) was killed in Macon State Prison in March 2020 during a fight over a contraband cellphone. (Family photo courtesy of Jennifer Bradley)

Carrington Frye, 23, had modest goals for the rest of his life. Just a few months shy of parole, the Macon State Prison inmate planned to become a trucker when he got out.

One day last March, he got in a fight over a contraband cellphone. Frye, who was sentenced to prison at age 17 for aggravated assault, was fatally stabbed in the neck and chest, said his mother, Jennifer Bradley. She only knew that because she saw her son’s body at his funeral. Prison officials disclosed few details about Frye’s death.

“He was left to die,” Bradley has concluded, relying on witnesses who told her it took 30 minutes before her son received medical attention for his wounds. She said only one guard was on duty in a cell block with 188 inmates.

A massive staff shortage is at the root of many of the Georgia correctional system’s failures, said Sherman Maine, a former captain at the Valdosta State Prison who remains in contact with several state corrections officers.

But the problems don’t stop there.

“We are beyond the crisis point and something needs to change,” said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights. Last September, the center wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation into Georgia’s prison system.

The Southern Center detailed a humanitarian crisis in which homicide and suicide rates had already reached “unprecedented levels.”

At least 25 inmate deaths within prison walls in 2020 were suspected homicides, seven at Macon State, according to unofficial numbers from the Southern Center and the Georgia Department of Corrections. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested an official count from the GDC but received no response.

As for suicides, the GDC did not provide final figures. But according to the Southern Center, as of the time of their letter, 19 inmates had killed themselves in 2020, twice the national average for state prisons.

Macon State Prison is southwest of Oglethorpe, Georgia. (Danny Robbins / AJC File)

Credit: AJC File

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Credit: AJC File

Geraghty said little has changed in the months since the request was made. “Things have only gotten worse,” she said.

Requests for comment from the GDC went unanswered, as they have for much of the past year.

Help wanted

The GDC’s annual report for fiscal year 2019 (the FY 2020 report has not yet been published) reveals a constant churn. Seventy-eight percent of the department’s new hires were corrections officers, according to the report. Of those, 71% quit before the year ended.

Gov. Brian Kemp just proposed a 10% pay increase for prison guards that would raise their entry level salary from $27,936 to $30,730.

“They’ll hire you if you’re a warm body,” said Maine, who won an unrelated whistleblower lawsuit against the prison system in 2018. “The experienced staff is leaving as fast as they can get out of there. What you’re left with is kids trying to supervise inmates they’re afraid of.”

And that’s had a domino effect.

“Without adequate staffing, the maintenance begins to suffer, food service suffers because they don’t feel safe,” Maine said. “They’ve created a circular problem.”

Cellphone video has depicted some of the more egregious examples of neglect. One video, shot by inmates at Macon State, showed brown sludge sputtering out of the only water spigot in their cell. Many other facilities have gone extended periods without hot water or heat in general.

Access to health care is more limited than ever, Geraghty said. And mental health counselors are afraid to go to the dorms, she said.

Understaffing has led to more inmates being stationed in temporary holding cages, going extended periods without food, water or even bathroom visits.

“Often they’re left in these cages to urinate and defecate on themselves,” Geraghty said.

At Ware State and Valdosta State prisons, there’s one guard on duty per shift where there used to be three, Maine said. Ware State was the scene of a riot in August that resulted in serious injuries to two guards and three inmates.

Maine said if the situation persists, lives will be at stake.

“It’s just a matter of time before you see casualties among the staff and inmates,” he said.

Gangs have filled the power vacuum. Last March, the GDC estimated it housed 15,000 gang members, nearly a third of its total population. In the five years previous, authorities said gangs were responsible for 1,700 assaults in Georgia prisons.

“Heck, gangs ran two-thirds of the prisons 10 years ago,” Maine said. “But I never thought they’d let it get to the point it’s at now.”

‘How does it get like this?’

The pandemic has only made the situation worse, as COVID-19 continues to spread through the prisons. Wednesday saw 44 inmates test positive for the virus; 3,100 have been infected so far. Eighty-eight have died. Another 1,482 staff members have tested positive and two died from the virus, according to the GDC.

Those figures are likely 10 times below the actual number of infections, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Shelia McCamy’s ex-husband, currently serving a 20-year sentence at Phillips State Prison in Buford, was among a dozen inmates there who recently tested positive for COVID-19. In emails shared by McCamy, her former spouse, who she declined to identify for fear of retaliation, tells her he has been quarantined in “The Hole” without heat or electricity.

“Gave me some cough syrup, and something for this headache is all,” he wrote. McCamy said her loved one is 59 years old and already in ill health, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

Eight days in, there’s still no power in his cell, she said. There are numerous accounts of COVID-19 prisoners locked in cells for days with no medical treatment.

“If he ever makes it home, I’ll take care of him,” McCamy said. “That’s if, and if don’t look so good right now.”

Prisoner-rights advocate Susan Sparks Burns, who runs the Facebook group “They Have No Voice,” a clearinghouse of firsthand accounts from Georgia’s correctional facilities, said the GDC has let the system devolve into chaos.

“How does it get like this?” she said. “We’ve got guys going 22 days without any access to showers. So many are sick and living in a filthy environment.”

And many are hungry, she said.

Nico Mitchell recently completed a two-year prison stint, the last of which was spent at Dodge State Prison in South Georgia.

“The food is horrific. A dog wouldn’t eat to it,” said Mitchell, who lost 22 pounds after two months of incarceration.

Prison commissaries are available to inmates who are sent money from loved ones. Mitchell said he turned to hustling to obtain extra funds for “free world food.”

Geraghty said federal intervention may be the only hope.

“I think (the GDC) is tolerating a level of chaos we have not seen in the last 20 years,” she said. “The scale of the problem is so great that federal intervention is necessary and warranted.”