“The entire GDC team is mourning the loss of one of our own and we collectively express our deepest condolences to Officer Clark’s family and friends,” GDOC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said. “We will support them as they navigate this tragedy over the coming days, weeks and months.”
Clark started GDOC training in April and began working as a correctional officer at Smith on May 15, according to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. He had no prior law enforcement employment in Georgia, POST’s website says.
Lester was convicted of a 2007 murder in Tift County and is serving a life sentence, according to the GDOC website.
Smith State Prison is chronically understaffed and has been embroiled in corruption and violence for years. This year has been especially turbulent.
Smith has had more homicides in 2023 than any other prison in Georgia’s system, with six inmates slain between March and August, according to an AJC review of GDOC mortality reports and state death records.
In February, Smith’s then-warden, Brian Adams, was arrested and fired for being part of a massive contraband scheme operating out of the prison. Adams was charged with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, bribery, making or writing false statements and violating his oath as a public officer. Warrants for Adams’ arrest said he received U.S. currency through a pattern of racketeering activity associated with the contraband operation.
Adams is among hundreds of Georgia prison employees arrested in recent years for corruption on the job, most often related to smuggling contraband into state prisons, the AJC found in an investigation published last month.
Along with having more homicides than any other facility, Smith has been overwhelmed with other violent incidents since Adams’ arrest. The same day the ex-warden was arrested, a fight broke out that took more than an hour to get under control and resulted in three inmates being hospitalized, according to news reports at the time.
A series of other violent attacks followed in the spring and summer, resulting in multiple hospitalizations. In one attack caught on video by other prisoners, four inmates beat, kicked another prisoner and stabbed him about a dozen times. The graphic video was posted on social media.
Smith is categorized as a close security prison because most inmates are considered risks for escape, violence or violating rules.
Georgia’s prisons have been woefully understaffed since the pandemic, especially when it comes to correctional officers. At Smith, more than 70% of the correctional officer positions have been unfilled for months, according to an AJC review of GDOC staffing data. The low staffing creates dangerous conditions for correctional officers and people serving their sentences.
Clark is the fourth Georgia law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty this year. The last two officers with the GDOC killed in the line of duty were Curtis Billue and Christopher Monica in 2017, according to the Officers Down Memorial Page, which tracks law enforcement deaths.
Inmates Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe were convicted of killing Billue and Monica, who were shot on a prison transport bus in Putnam County. In June 2022, just 10 days after being sentenced to death, Dubose was found unresponsive in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, where the state houses its death-sentenced prisoners. His death was ruled a suicide.