Frustrated federal judge imposes fines, monitor on Georgia prison

Prison officials accused of stalling, falsifying records in long-running lawsuit over conditions at high-security facility
The Special Management Unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is for inmates who require intense and close supervision. But after a lawsuit revealed horrific conditions at the facility, the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2019 had agreed to reforms. A federal judge has now found that the GDC never complied. (Ben Gray /

The Special Management Unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is for inmates who require intense and close supervision. But after a lawsuit revealed horrific conditions at the facility, the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2019 had agreed to reforms. A federal judge has now found that the GDC never complied. (Ben Gray /

In a blistering 100-page contempt order, a federal judge has found Georgia Department of Corrections officials willfully disregarded requirements to improve deplorable conditions inside the high-security Special Management Unit prison.

Judge Marc T. Treadwell, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Macon, said GDC officials, over several years, violated every requirement he has placed on the prison system, and when officials asked for more time and promised to do better, they continued to ignore the requirements.

It became clear, the judge wrote, that prison officials had no desire or intention to comply. They were simply stalling, hoping the case would end before they had to make changes, he wrote.

“The Court can no longer tolerate the defendants’ misconduct and, for the reasons discussed below, holds the defendants in contempt,” Treadwell wrote.

Treadwell ordered the appointment of an independent monitor, at the prison system’s expense, to keep watch on compliance with the requirements. He also imposed a $2,500-a-day fine for failure to comply with his order to improve conditions at the Special Management Unit, which is Georgia’s version of a “supermax” high-security prison, located at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

“Because of the defendants’ longstanding and flagrant violations of the Court’s injunction, the Court finds that coercive sanctions are necessary to compel compliance,” Treadwell wrote.

GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver, SMU Warden Joe Williams and GDC Director of Field Operations Stan Shepard are among the named defendants. A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections said Monday that the agency would not comment on a legal matter.

The case began in 2015 when Timothy Gumm, who was then incarcerated at the Special Management Unit, filed a lawsuit challenging the conditions of his solitary confinement. He had been confined to a cell for years, without regular time outside or human contact with anyone except a correctional officer who delivered his food trays, according to his suit. The case grew to cover other others, and attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights were called in by the court to represent an entire class of prisoners.

In 2017, a top expert on solitary confinement described the SMU as “one of the harshest and most draconian” solitary confinement facilities he had ever seen. The judge’s order quoted Dr. Craig Haney’s observation of one area of the unit that he described in his evaluation. “The atmosphere inside E Wing was bedlam-like, as chaotic and out-of-control as any such unit I have seen in decades of conducting such evaluations. When I entered this housing unit I was met with a cacophony of prisoner screams and cries for help. The noise was deafening ….,” Haney observed.

Haney also found that the number of prisoners with mental illness housed at the SMU was “shockingly high” and there was no justification for incarcerating so many mentally ill inmates in such harsh conditions given the potential damage that would likely result.

Those findings were hailed as a watershed moment that resulted in a settlement in 2019. The settlement called for sweeping changes to policies and practices at the high-security prison.

Prisoners were to have at least four hours out of their cells on weekdays, and time at SMU would have to be limited to two years for most. Those in the unit were to get library access, out-of-cell programming, computer tablets for use in their cells, and regular mental health evaluations. The settlement also required a process for assigning and keeping someone incarcerated at the unit.

Over and over again, the system failed to live up to the terms of the settlement and court orders that followed. The judge found that prison officials falsified documents and were figuratively “thumbing their noses” at the judge and his requirements.

The judge did not mask his frustration with prison officials’ continued failures to live up to promises to comply with orders and improve conditions. Explaining why he grew skeptical, the judge wrote: “After all, the Court had heard for over four years, promises, assurances, and representations that all would be well, all of which proved to be hollow.”

The judge said prison officials appeared to have falsified documents to suggest that programming was being provided and required mental health evaluations were taking place — when they weren’t. His order noted that prison officials would report they were in compliance or close to it on a variety of requirements, but a deep dive into their records would show that their claims weren’t true.

The judge also found that the lawsuit uncovered another abuse. Prison officials were routinely and improperly placing prisoners in strip cells with disturbing conditions when they arrived at the Special Management Unit. He reviewed testimony from six inmates who shared graphic details about being placed in the cells, naked or nearly naked, for days.

“All six testified about the horrific conditions they endured, and they claimed they were denied virtually every right assured by the injunction,” the judge said in his contempt order. One said he did not receive showers, out-of-cell time, programming, cell cleanout, kiosk or book cart access while in the cell. The prisoner said “the toilet was broken and filled to the brim with feces and urine from prior occupants. Because he could not use the toilet, he was forced to urinate in a cup and pour it in the sink or defecate on toilet paper and dispose of it on his food tray to have it removed from his cell. "

He did not have a mattress or any clothing and said the temperature was freezing. The judge wrote in the order that the attorney representing the prison system did not refute the testimony of the six prisoners when given the opportunity during the hearing.

The judge asked the parties to suggest an independent monitor by early next month and said the settlement agreement and follow-up orders would be extended for at least six months after the monitor is installed.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of Judge Treadwell’s order,” the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a statement to the AJC on Monday. “In 2019, the GDC agreed to make fundamental changes to the SMU, changes that, if implemented, would have helped reduce the trauma, deplorable conditions, and abuse that came to define life in the state’s most draconian prison. But time and time again, the GDC has not honored its promises. We are hopeful that the men in the SMU will finally receive the humane treatment that the Court has longed called for.”

Our reporting

For years the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported on horrific conditions in Georgia state prisons. Conditions at the state’s “supermax” prison, the Special Management Unit, came to light in a 2015 lawsuit filed by a prisoner there. As detailed in a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, prisoners were confined for 22 to 24 hours a day alone in small cells, with no outside light, no access to reading materials and solid metal doors instead of bars. That isolation, the lawsuit alleged, amounted to torture. That case wound through the court system through early 2019, when the Georgia Department of Corrections agreed to improve conditions. As the AJC reported then, the Georgia Department of Corrections agreed to a number of stipulations aimed at reducing the harms caused by the severe isolation.

Throughout 2023, the AJC also has independently examined the prison system, revealing disturbing issues of violence, corruption and threats to the public. Those stories are available at