According to interviews with guards and inmates, prisoners have been upset in recent weeks because the facility was placed on lockdown after one man serving time for manslaughter was killed in what officials said was a fight with another prisoner. Robert Wilson, 10 years into his 20-year sentence from Fulton County, was killed on July 17.
Like prisoners held at other Georgia facilities, those at Ware State say they have been afraid the prison system wasn’t protecting them from COVID-19. Nearly 1,000 inmates in Georgia prisons have tested positive and 33 have died, including two from Ware State, according to state records.
Prisoners have also been more isolated than normal, because visitations have been canceled since March and, on the outside, family members have gotten sick and died from COVID-19.
A prisoner serving time at Ware State for armed robbery recently told the AJC tensions were rising. “You never know what’s going to happen,” said the man, who has lung issues and said he was having trouble getting protective masks and adequate soap.
Campos said she understands the inmates’ fears because short-staffing makes the prison less safe for everyone. “They’re going to have to bring someone in to run that prison or else they’re going to take it over,” she said in an interview.
Guards at the prison, which holds more than 1,500 men, say they regularly are asked to watch 200 inmates in two separate buildings alone. COVID-19 has made staffing concerns worse because guards are out sick with the disease and inmates are in local hospitals receiving treatment. When an inmate is hospitalized, two guards must sit with him at the hospital, instead of working at the prison.
Correctional officers complain they don’t have the needed pepper spray to protect themselves and have trouble getting handcuffs. The Department of Corrections disputes that assertion.
“It does seem a little suspect (if) they don’t have the basic material they feel they need to do their jobs,” said Danielle Rudes, associate professor of criminology, law and society at Virginia’s George Mason University. She said she wasn’t surprised the riot came after a recent homicide. “Things get really tense (after a killing). Then you add a pandemic to that which has been going on since march, it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
A video posted to Facebook on Saturday by a man who said he was incarcerated at the prison showed an inmate drenched in blood as others helped him tend to a wound. In another video, a large group of prisoners roamed with no guards in sight. The man filming said he wanted his family to know he loved them, just in case anything happened to him. The videos were apparently made with contraband cell phones.
Elsewhere, guards were calling their wives and husbands to say their goodbyes, said a correctional officer who was there. The man is still employed at the prison and spoke to the AJC anonymously, fearing reprisals if he gave his name. He said Saturday’s riot left him traumatized and he fears returning to work.
“If you do try to speak out,” he said, “It’s either, ‘Here’s the door,’ or ‘You’re going to suck up and do it.‘”