Guards: South Georgia prison riot a bad omen for other facilities

In a screen shot from Facebook video purportedly taken early Sunday morning at Ware State Prison, inmates help one of their own who was hurt in a riot.
In a screen shot from Facebook video purportedly taken early Sunday morning at Ware State Prison, inmates help one of their own who was hurt in a riot.

At least two correctional officers have quit and others are considering it after a violent riot at Ware State Prison over the weekend. Interviews with guards and inmates suggest short staffing in part due to coronavirus left the prison vulnerable. What happened in Waycross could be a cautionary tale for other Georgia prisons facing the same pandemic and tensions, they say.

“The reason for my resignation is we are too short staffed to safely run the prison,” Danyelle Campos, who’d been a guard at the prison for nine months but wasn’t on duty during the riot, wrote in her resignation letter Monday. “Too many officers are being put in unnecessary risk and nothing is being done.”

At 10:40 p.m. inmates took advantage of malfunctioning doors and walked out of their rooms, according to three guards who work at the facility or quit have since the riot. Prisoners then attacked guards and took their keys, the guards told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. One guard was locked in a cell and hit in the head, while another was beaten and stabbed before inmates used the keys to let out others who were locked up, the guards said. Guards were beaten and stabbed and at least three prisoners were hurt before the situation was deemed under control at 1 a.m. Sunday, officials said. One guard remained hospitalized Monday.

Correctional officers told the AJC that a golf cart was torched, windows were broken and inmates seized gas masks, riot shields, officers’ radios and at least one Taser, which was fired at officers, during the mayhem.

The Georgia Department of Corrections said it is investigating.

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.‘”