Q&A with GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver
Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Tyrone Oliver heads up the state’s largest law enforcement agency. With more than 6,000 full-time employees, his staff oversees about 49,000 people incarcerated in prisons, substance abuse facilities and transitional centers across Georgia. Oliver’s appointment to lead the agency was announced in December, when the prison system was gaining attention for violence, understaffing and an ongoing federal investigation of conditions.
Oliver started his law enforcement career as a detention officer in Newton County and worked his way up to serve in several Georgia law enforcement agencies. Before becoming the corrections commissioner, he oversaw Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
In July, Oliver sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a 90-minute interview to discuss compromised officers, contraband, staffing and other issues.
Here are the key points Oliver made during his conversation with the AJC:
Prisons might be secure environments, but they’re treacherous: “We patrol the most dangerous communities in the state of Georgia,” Oliver said. “ ... Inside the walls of every prison in Georgia are the most dangerous communities, because we took those criminals off the street and they’re here for a reason, and they’re behind our walls, and our men and women go in there each and every day patrolling that. That’s the operational reality.”
Georgia’s criminal justice reforms, which emphasized alternatives to incarcerating people convicted of nonviolent offenses, changed the profile of those behind bars: “Our violent population has steadily increased since criminal justice reform ... You take a prison that is housing 1,400 or 1,600 inmates, 90% of those are violent; the majority of those are gang-involved, validated gangs. Each day that goes on that we don’t have anything happen is a good day, because it’s a difficult population that you’re dealing with.”
Contraband cellphones are the biggest challenge because they enable further crimes: “Cellphones are creating the problems. If we can find a way ... to block cellphones, so the gangs and the offenders inside the walls can’t continue their criminal enterprises inside the prison walls, that will cut down on a lot of it. We have to get some technology in place to get rid of the cellphone signals inside the prisons.” Oliver said he and prison officials from other states went to Washington to push for federal authorization to block cellphone signals, with some arguing that cellphones can become deadly weapons. “That’s the root of all problems inside of prisons, not only in Georgia but across this country and also in the federal system.”
While some officers are compromised and bring in contraband, he said most of the drugs, cellphones and other types of contraband come into the prisons by other means: “You got it coming in from the inside, you’ve got it coming in from contract workers. You got it coming in from drones, you got it coming in through the mail, you’ve got it coming in through legal mail. It’s like, ‘OK, where do you hit it and where do you attack it?’ That’s our issue ... we just got to be better at detecting it and getting it, which, I think, you know, here recently, we’ve been doing.”
The vast majority of correctional officers are honest, hard-working state employees who follow a moral compass: “My core values are integrity, accountability and dedication. I do know that if you don’t live up to those and you get compromised, that’s going to be the end of your career.”