Pippa Hall-Jackson was afraid. Death was stalking him, and the 19-year-old inmate at Hays State Prison didn’t know where to turn.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it down here, honestly,” Hall-Jackson wrote to his aunt, Natasha Hall, referring to the Chattooga County lockup. He asked that his family try to get him transferred to another prison, away from the inmates who had kept him looking over his shoulder. He also asked that the family stay in touch. “You never know what tomorrow has in store,” wrote Hall-Jackson, who was serving a 20-year sentence for aggravated assault.
Exactly one week after reaching out to his aunt, Hall-Jackson was dead. While the Atlanta man had managed to secure the transfer he so desired, he never even made it inside the new facility. Hall-Jackson was stabbed to death Feb. 4 while walking from the van to the building in an apparent gang hit that attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights said was a case of mistaken identity.
In a little more than 10 months, 12 inmates and a guard have been stabbed to death in Georgia prisons, a dramatic uptick in violence that law enforcement officials and human rights advocates agree points to increased gang activity.
“We cannot remember a time like this when we were getting this volume and severity of violence,” said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which monitors prison violence.
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The number of fatal inmate-on-inmate attacks has been trending up since 2009, when four inmates were killed, up from only two the year before. Seven inmate homicides were reported in 2010 and in 2011. Last year, nine inmates and one correctional officer were killed by prisoners.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported that seven of the killings last year were gang related. The GBI says the three so far this year were gang related as well.
Smuggled cell phones, which the Department of Corrections has conceded is a major problem with as many as 10,000 taken from prisoners in a year, allow inmates to reach other gang members and plan the ambushes. And the agency has been frustrated by federal telecommunications restrictions that prevent the agency from employing technology that would interfere with cell phone signals inside the prison and possibly cut down on prisoners coordinating with other prisoners.
“The prisoners are running the dorms (cell blocks). Gangs run the dorms,” said Totonchi. “Cell phones facilitate a level of gang behavior and coordination that formerly was only available on the outside. They (DOC) continue to turn a blind eye.”
Added Sarah Geraghty, an attorney at the Southern Center, “The violence reaches outside prison walls to the families of correctional officers who are injured, and to the taxpayers who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical care for injured prisoners. Moreover, most prisoners will be released to live among us some day, and we are all less safe in a society that tolerates this level of trauma and violence in its prisons.”
The Department of Corrections declined to make anyone available for comment but wrote in an email, “The department takes very seriously any incident that may occur within our facilities.”
It’s not just inmate safety at risk when prison violence increases, said Sen. Chuck Hufsteler, R-Rome, whose district includes Hays State Prison. The prison staff are in danger.
Inmate Caesar Rogers is charged with stabbing to death Telfair State Prison correctional officer Larry Stell on Oct. 11. Last month, armed inmates at Hays State Prison also attacked to two officers; they survived.
“It’s important that we protect our guards and that they feel secure,” Hufstetler said. “I don’t think they have felt secure in the past. … For whatever reason the prisoners are in there, we have to protect them from other prisoners.”
The DOC noted in the email that the GBI, an “outside agency,” is called in to investigate inmate attacks.
“It is important to note that the offender population is becoming increasingly violent and the department remains committed to ensuring the safety of the public, our staff and, to the extent possible, the safety of our inmates from each other,” DOC said in the email.
Sara Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center, said gangs fill “a security vacuum.
“Cell doors (at Hays State Prison) have been left broken, some for more than a year,” she said. “Prisoners routinely slept in cells to which they were not assigned. Prisoners were able to move undetected across the prison campus to areas in which they are not authorized to be. Stabbings and beatings have been routine. Gang leaders exercise control over housing assignments and were permitted to expel prisoners they no longer wanted in their dorms.”
Nathaniel Reynolds Jr., serving a life sentence for a 1998 murder he committed when he was 17, was stabbed to death in a fight at Hays State Prison on Jan. 18 as the 30-year-old returned to a cell block from the “hole.”
“They were waiting on him outside. He didn’t even make it back to the building,” said Nathaniel Reynolds Sr.
The father said the security was lax, even in the cell blocks where inmates are segregated, closely searched and are limited in what they can have. For example, his son had been locked away from other inmates for months, but he still had smuggle cell phones; he said the officers had taken 10 to 15 cell phones from his son.
“It’s obviously getting worse and there are no signs of it letting up,” Geraghty said. “(DOC) is failing to realize the severity and scope of the problem. … It’s well past the time for the department to retain an independent outside expert.”