Georgia officials won’t release information on how prisoners are dying

AJC finds Georgia stands out in South for prison homicide figures as troubled state system faces scrutiny
Jeremy Edward Price died on March 2, 2024, at Hays State Prison in what the GDC's incident report calls a homicide. However, the manner of his death was omitted from the agency's March mortality report. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

Credit: Georgia Dept of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Dept of Corrections

Jeremy Edward Price died on March 2, 2024, at Hays State Prison in what the GDC's incident report calls a homicide. However, the manner of his death was omitted from the agency's March mortality report. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

With Georgia prisons on pace to set yet another grim record for homicides, the Department of Corrections has decided to no longer issue reports on how its inmates are dying.

After years of providing monthly mortality reports that often included the initial manner of death, the GDC abruptly decided to withhold that information, starting with the March report. Instead, GDC said it will release the manner of death for prisoners only after local medical examiners make those determinations— a process that can take a year or more.

The GDC’s decision to stop including manner of death information in its monthly reports came as the prison system had at least nine homicides in the first quarter of 2024, according to an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That compares to five for the first three months of last year, which ended with a record 36 prisoners and one correctional officer slain. The 2024 toll may be the highest the system has ever recorded for the first quarter, topping homicide counts back to at least 2015.

Coupled with the troubling rise in homicides, the GDC’s decision offers yet another snapshot of an agency that has reacted to mounting scrutiny by shutting off what many see as crucial public information.

“People should not be dying inside prisons and jails, and when they are (dying), we need to know that, because this is something that has happened under our government’s watch,” said Michele Deitch, a distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who directs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

In an interview with the AJC last month, GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said listing manner of death on the monthly reports was “just speculation” on the agency’s part. Waiting for the medical examiner findings will lead to more accurate information, he said.

However, the agency recently denied an AJC request for all updated manner of death determinations for recent years.

The AJC is contesting the GDC’s refusal to disclose death information, arguing that it is subject to release under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

The GDC’s January and February mortality reports list the manner of death of 35 prisoners as unknown, five as natural, seven as suicides and seven as homicides. The March report lists 18 deaths — including that of Willie Pye, who was executed — without details other than the prisoners’ names, GDC numbers, the dates of their deaths, the facilities where they died and their years of birth.

Yet the GDC’s own incident reports, prepared by correctional officers in real time at the facilities where the deaths occurred, labeled two March deaths as homicides. The incident reports were obtained by the AJC in response to requests under the Georgia Open Records Act.

One prisoner listed as a homicide victim was 36-year-old Jeremy Price, who died March 2 at Hays State Prison. The incident report describes the killing as an “inmate to inmate assault” and says a “handmade weapon” was used.

Price’s mother, Tammy Price, told the AJC she was informed by the prison warden just hours after her son’s death that he died from multiple stab wounds. Omitting the manner of his death from the March mortality report only serves as further evidence that the GDC is trying to hide its inability to protect prisoners from harm, she said.

“They don’t want people to know that people are losing their lives in that prison and others,” she said. “I know things happen. My son was a grown man. But he was in (the GDC’s) care. It’s their responsibility to keep him safe. And there’s zero accountability or responsibility. Zero.”

Jeremy Price died on March 2, 2024, at Hays State Prison, but the GDC's mortality report for March (top) doesn't disclose that the agency considers his death a homicide, as indicated in the incident report (highlighted at bottom). (Georgia Department of Corrections)

Credit: Georgia Dept of Corrections

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Credit: Georgia Dept of Corrections

The GDC’s March list doesn’t include at least one additional death, that of 26-year-old Raquon Tucker, who was incarcerated at Dooly State Prison when he died March 22 after being transported to an Albany hospital. The cause of Tucker’s death is pending a toxicology report and completion of an investigation by the Department of Corrections, according to Brett Walls, the county’s deputy coroner.

By the numbers

The Georgia prison system appears to be in a class by itself when it comes to killings, the AJC found.

GDC facilities had eight homicides for the entirety of 2017 and nine for all of 2018. Since then, the numbers have increased each year to the point where Georgia is now virtually an outlier among state prison systems in the South.

From 2021 through 2023, 98 Georgia prison deaths were classified as homicides. During the same period, 37 prison deaths were classified as homicides in Texas, which has more than twice the prison population.

The number of prison homicides in Georgia in 2022 — 31 — was twice what was reported in Florida, where the prison population is almost twice as large, and far greater than what was reported in South Carolina, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Of nearby states, in recent years only Alabama appears to be surpassing Georgia’s prison homicide rate.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Alabama in 2020, accusing the state of failing to protect prisoners from violence and sexual abuse, in a case that is still pending. The DOJ could potentially make a similar case against Georgia when it completes an investigation initiated in 2021.

Escalating violence in Georgia’s prisons has also brought scrutiny from a state Senate panel aimed at making changes to protect prisoners and staff, as well as from local officials who believe prisons are no longer desirable in their communities, despite the jobs they bring, because of the spillover in violence and other illegal activities.

The GDC has explained its high rate of violence by suggesting that the people sentenced to prison in Georgia are more prone to violence than those in other states across the South.

“You’ll find that Georgia has a more violent population than any of these other states,” Oliver told the AJC, noting that a majority of Georgia inmates are gang-affiliated and many are both gang members and have mental health diagnoses.

But others say high levels of violence in a prison system suggests a problem with the system itself.

GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver, shown here in 2020, recently told the AJC that listing the manner of death in the monthly mortality reports was “just speculation” on the agency’s part. (Ryon Horne/2020 AJC file photo)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

“People are not sent to prison as a death sentence,” said Deitch, an attorney who works on criminal justice policy issues and has special expertise on correctional oversight and prison conditions. “They are supposed to be getting out. They’re supposed to be kept safe and healthy while they’re inside. No one should be in fear of their lives while they’re incarcerated.”

If prisons are violent, she said, it not only risks lives, it risks public safety, because prisons are supposed to address addiction, trauma, mental health issues or other problems brought to them by prisoners in the first place.

“If we want people to be coming out not worse than when they went in, we need to give them a safe environment in which they can work on themselves,” she said.

Limiting disclosure

The GDC’s decision to stop listing manner of death on the monthly mortality reports stands in sharp contrast to most Georgia law enforcement agencies, which routinely release such information, along with basic details, in their initial incident reports.

It also differs markedly from how several other prison systems disclose information about inmate deaths .

In Texas, state law requires agencies to file detailed public reports for all deaths of individuals who are incarcerated or in the custody of law enforcement. Florida publishes on its website detailed death information for every prison. The Arkansas Department of Corrections issues media advisories on suspected homicides or suicides.

“People are not sent to prison as a death sentence. ... They're supposed to be kept safe and healthy while they're inside."

- Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs

Oliver, in explaining the department’s new policy regarding the monthly reports, said waiting for an official determination can lead to more accurate information, since a coroner could reverse an initial finding. A death that might seem like a homicide or suicide could in fact be something else, he said.

“Even a person hanging in a cell could be covering up a homicide,” he said.

Even if a person is found dead with multiple stab wounds, the GDC will wait for a medical examiner’s findings before releasing the information, Oliver said.

Medical examiner findings are not yet available for 72 of the 73 prisoners who have died this year, nor for more than 50 of the prisoners who died in 2023, the AJC found.

The change in the mortality reports follows other attempts by the GDC to clamp down on public information, including its decision in 2020 to stop issuing news releases on deaths believed to be suicides or homicides.

Georgia prison reform advocate Susan Sparks Burns said she began requesting the monthly mortality reports from the GDC in 2017 and has used them to prepare spreadsheets detailing prison deaths. Failing to disclose the manner of death as part of the reports is a major roadblock to learning what’s going on inside the state’s prisons, she said.

“It’s very hard to get this information unless you know a family member or someone at the facility,” said Burns, whose Facebook group, They Have No Voice, has become an important clearinghouse of news and information for families with loved ones in the prison system.

Entire pages blacked out

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

The incident reports for the March deaths obtained by the AJC through the Georgia Open Records Act revealed scant information. Most were simply listed as “deaths,” and any details about the circumstances were removed, with entire pages blacked out in most cases.

In addition to Price’s death being noted as a homicide, the death of Reginald Ginn at Macon State Prison on March 13 was labeled a homicide as well. Ginn, 31, was apparently beaten to death by an inmate wielding a fan motor tied to a belt, according to the incident report.

Tammy Price, who lives in Rantoul, Ill., said she knows little about her son’s death other than what’s in the incident report, which the AJC shared with her, and on the death certificate, which she received from the funeral home on May 3. The death certificate confirms that Jeremy Price’s death was a homicide and that he died from stab wounds to the neck and chest.

Jeremy moved to the Atlanta area in 2010 with hopes of making It as a rapper but was sentenced to prison after he robbed a cab driver in Gwinnett County. He was due to complete his sentence for armed robbery next February and was excited about meeting a 14-year-old son born while he was in prison, his mother said.

The GDC's mortality roster (top) lists Reginald Lamar Ginn, who died on March 13, 2024, at Macon State Prison. The incident report regarding his death (highlighted at bottom) shows that the agency reported his death as a homicide. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

Credit: Georgia Dept of Corrections

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Credit: Georgia Dept of Corrections

Tammy Price said she hasn’t heard from the warden at Hays since his initial phone call. She said her follow-up calls have been returned by a chaplain who, she said, told her she should at least be “glad” that her son’s killing is being investigated by an “outside agency.”

She said she wasn’t given more information. Most deaths inside GDC facilities are investigated by the agency’s Office of Professional Standards, although the GBI is occasionally involved as well.

Since her son’s death, Tammy Price said, she spends sleepless nights on the couch, hoping not to bother her husband in their bedroom, as she deals with grief and frustration.

“I just want some answers,” she said. “Tell me what happened to my child. Just tell me what happened.”

AJC investigations editor Lois Norder contributed to this report