Georgia prisons: Gangs, rising violence, thousands of cellphones

A surge in violence in Georgia prisons over the past few weeks has left at least two inmates dead and dozens of others injured, put staff in danger and forced the lock-down of as many as eight of Georgia's 33 prisons.

Contributing to the dangerous climate inside the state’s prisons have been the heat in prisons without air conditioning, the prevalence of cellphones that sell for as much as $500 in the hands of thousands of inmates (8,800 confiscated in the first six months of this year) and the growing presence of violent gangs that increased their numbers last year alone by an estimated 4,200.

“We are recognizing now that gangs are driving all our incidents,” said Ricky Myrick, director of the Department of Corrections’ Office of Professional Standards. “They (inmates) always know what we are doing. Nothing is secret.”

The state has failed over the last several years to implement long-term strategies to reduce violence in prisons, said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. So conditions inside prison walls remain dangerous for everyone.

The Southern Center has complained about the danger to inmates and staff for several years, even asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate in July 2014 after 12 inmates and a guard were stabbed to death in just 10 months. By then, the Southern Center had tracked the number of fatal inmate-on-inmate attacks for several years; four inmates killed in 2009, seven inmates killed in 2010 and again in 2011 and nine inmates and a correctional officer killed by prisoners in 2013.

Last year, the Department of Corrections reported, three inmates were killed by other prisoners.

The Justice Department never responded to Geraghty’s letter. The Justice Department also did not respond to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s most recent request for comment on Monday.

Georgia’s Department of Corrections is working to address the increased tensions by quickly locking down facilities officials spot potential problems coming, according to a statement. It has also installed new locking mechanisms and replaced cell fixtures that can be turned into weapons. And staff have been trained to spot gang activity.

In an attempt to hold down fatal inmate attacks this year, prison officials have also suspended family and friends’ visits with inmates and restricted prisoners’ movement. A total of eight prisons have been locked down off and on since June.

Killings lead to unrest

Yet the violence has continued.

As recently as Aug. 8, an inmate at Macon State Prison was killed and another prisoner was injured and taken to a local hospital. Inmates Marco Danyel McIlwain and Alexander Woods III were charged last week with murdering Kendrick Hicks. Corrections investigators attributed Hicks’ death to fights between rival gangs.

Right after Hicks was killed, the Department of Corrections cancelled visitation and locked down Macon State Prison and also Telfair State Prison, where intelligence determined the unrest had spread. After a few days, the restrictions were lifted for most inmates at Macon State Prison; only the areas where the attack occurred remain locked down. Inmates at Telfair, however, remain locked down because officials think the population there is still volatile.

Myrick said the “uptick” in violence inside Georgia prisons this summer started at Smith State Prison on June 20 with a “localized incident,” a fight between competing gangs. Trouble quickly spread throughout the Tattnall County prison and by the end of the day 16 inmates had to be taken to a local hospital because their injuries were too serious to be treated at the prison infirmary.

Word of the fights then spread to Calhoun State Prison in Morgan, 200 miles away.

“Inmates were twisting what happened,” Myrick said. “Some believed it was gang ordered… We believe they were (communicating by cellphone).”

At Calhoun State Prison, soon after the disturbances at Smith State Prison in Glenville, Joshua Brooks was beaten to death, allegedly by three other inmates.

Wesley Adams, Andre Burley and Demetrius Smith are now charged with murdering Brooks. Shakera Burns, a former guard who had worked at Calhoun for a year before she was fired, also was charged in Brooks’ beating death for allegedly allowing Adams, Burley and Smith access to Brooks in his cell. Investigators suspect Burns was a member of the same gang as the three accused murderers.

“These gang members are going through their family members on the street and recruiting those who don’t have a criminal history,” Myrick said. “They come to work for us knowing they have a job with the Department of Corrections and have a job with the gangs.”

Cellphones increase danger

The rumors around the disturbances at Macon and Smith spread to other prisons, leading to the lockdowns.

About 190 inmates have recently been separated from the general prison population because of their roles in recent prison violence or because they are at risk of attack by other prisoners.

“What we hear from experts in prison security is gangs fill a security vacuum,” Geraghty said.

And there is money to be made.

"A prevalence of cellphones is a significant problem," Geraghty said.

And it seems every inmate has a cellphone or access to one, she said.

Experts agree that the phones make it easier for inmates to arrange attacks on other prisoners being relocated for their own protection. They also make it possible for prisoners to continue their criminal enterprises even while in prison.

Myrick said a smuggled $20 cellphone will sell for $250 to $500, and some prison employees see smuggling in cellphones as a way to supplement their salaries. Earlier this year, for example, the FBI arrested 46 current and former correction officers at nine Georgia prisons for providing inmates with cellphones to inmates.

"You have inmates with access to social media and they have real time access to each other, ordering hits inside the prison and on the street," Myrick said, noting that inmate Kenneth Eric Jackson was charged with using a cellphone to order the death of a 9-month-old boy because his uncle had violated gang rules.

“This makes it much more dangerous,” Myrick said.