Witnesses describe inhumane conditions in Georgia prisons, call for change

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

State representatives on Thursday heard grim testimony about the conditions in which people are living and increasingly dying inside Georgia prisons.

A mother said prison staff didn’t bother to notify her that her son was stabbed to death. Another mom said her son’s mental health has been made worse by trauma and poor care behind bars. A nonprofit worker told of a woman who, repeatedly denied help by prison staff, borrowed a pair of nail clippers and a mirror, then removed her own stitches from a recent childbirth.

The testimony was before a state House committee formed by Democratic lawmakers to study and expose what they call an urgent crisis of homicides, suicides and understaffing.

Charmaine Orr said her son, whom she declined to name for fear of retaliation against him, has been in solitary confinement in a Georgia prison for at least 18 months.

“He has not been outside. He complains of starving,” Orr said, adding that he has mental health troubles and has been deprived of his medicine. “He has gone from me recognizing his voice to the person speaking to me now is not him.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into whether the Georgia Department of Corrections is doing enough to prevent violence and abuse against incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community.

House committee members praised federal authorities for stepping in but also said Georgia can’t wait for the results of the investigation to enact reforms.

State Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said he hoped the testimony would spur officials and the public to call for “no less than a complete overhaul of the Georgia Department of Corrections.”

McLaurin, nonprofit workers, activists and others have also called for officials to release people to stem the spread of COVID-19 and the myriad issues caused by chronic understaffing. State officials, including the state parole board, have resisted any large-scale releases.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

McLaurin invited a guard from Lee Arrendale State Prison, Georgia’s largest prison for women, to speak via phone Thursday. The guard, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the facility is dangerously understaffed, the medical care is poor and the food is vile.

“The gangs pretty much run the prison,” the man said, adding that on a good day the prison has six or seven officers to guard hundreds of incarcerated women. “All the officers that work there … we absolutely despise working there. There’s no support from the upper administration. We have to watch our backs.”

A Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman broadly denied allegations leveled in the hearing.

“The GDC is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and denies that it has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence,” said Lori Benoit, public affairs manager for the agency. “This commitment includes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Hope Johnson, a UCLA data scientist helping to track COVID-19 in American prisons and jails, said Georgia has the second-highest death rate for people who contract the disease behind bars. Only Alabama has fared worse.

Prison officials had a tracker on their website tallying positive cases and deaths among incarcerated people and staff, until this March. Since then, the information has been much harder to come by, and the agency hasn’t reported any COVID-19 deaths.

“That is surprising,” Johnson said, adding that “almost certainly” there have been COVID deaths to report in the last six months.

Johnson and others stressed that prison officials’ failure to stem outbreaks behind bars also endangers people who live near the facilities. Many prisons are major employers in rural regions.

ExploreThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s comprehensive coverage of Georgia prisons

Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, has been advocating for more humane treatment of people behind bars in Georgia for 20 years. She told the committee she’s never seen conditions and the apathy of officials worse.

“Georgia prisons have never been a beacon of human rights,” Totonchi said. “In every decade in recent memory, there’s been a crescendo of violence.”

Through the years, the Southern Center and other nonprofits have forced reforms. The organization sued last week over suicides and alleged widespread use of solitary confinement at Smith State Prison on people who struggle with mental illnesses.

But Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney at the nonprofit, said litigation can’t always be the answer. It’s slow, expensive, and there aren’t enough lawyers in the field.

“It is imperative,” Hollie said, “that lawmakers and the general public demand accountability.”