‘Treat them as humans.’ Advocates lobby senators for prison reform

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

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

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

Georgia’s prisons have reached a crisis point, reform advocates said Wednesday during a Senate hearing of the State Institutions and Property Committee.

Senators listened as former prisoners and family members of current inmates pled for more humane treatment. Only one senator asked a question. No one from the Georgia Department of Corrections attended the 45-minute hearing.

Tommie Thompson, whose son is serving a 50-year sentence, with 30 years to serve, for attempted murder, said a guard shortage has gotten worse since the global pandemic with dire consequences.

“My son was beaten in a elevator where there are no cameras,” Thompson said. Her son, 28, suffers from schizoaffective disorder, with symptoms including hallucinations, depression and mania. He’s currently incarcerated at Phillips State Prison.

Inside many state correctional facilities, sewers are backed up, mold has become more pervasive and trash piles up, boosting the rodent population, Thompson said.

“So much needs to be done to make our justice restorative instead of punitive,” she said. “Treat them as humans.”

State Sen. Ed Harbison (D-Columbus) said the committee makes annual visits to a correctional facility, but wasn’t sure the last time that happened.

“We toured (Phillips) and we found things to be adequate at that time,” said Harbison, who chairs the institutions and property committee. Harbison told Thompson the GDC and its commissioner, Timothy Ward, “will take everything you said very seriously.”

Pamela Winn, founder of RestoreHer, which seeks to end mass incarceration for women of color and pregnant women, challenged Harbison to increase prison oversight.

“I would ask you to do an unannounced walkthrough,” Winn said. " When they know you’re coming they allow you to see the best of he best. If you took your own tour, I’m sure you would see different things.”

Winn was six weeks pregnant when she began serving time at the Robert Dayton Detention Facility in Lovejoy. She said she was shackled, which caused a fall that led to her miscarrying.

“I was shackled to the bed while I endured my miscarriage,” said Winn, who was sentenced to more than six years for healthcare fraud . “At that point the guards discarded my unborn fetus in the trash.”

Harbison pledged the committee would get answers from the GDC, adding, “I’m sure, like you, there are mistakes made but at the same time I’m sure they have the right intentions.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights has written to the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a federal probe of Georgia’s prisons. Conditions have worsened since the pandemic, said Marissa Dodson, a lawyer for the Southern Center.

There have been 3,546 cases of COVID-19 inside state correctional facilities, resulting in 89 deaths, according to the GDC.

Public health experts say the infection rate is likely 10 to 12 times higher, according to Dodson.

“We still believe there is a lack of transparency as to how uniform the response to COVID-19 has been,” she said.

Following the hearing, State Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Atlanta) was asked whether federal intervention was needed.

“That would be helpful,” she said, noting the General Assembly is unlikely to pass any meaningful reforms during the 2021 session.