Georgia’s prisons chief thrust into spotlight only weeks into job

The magnitude of Homer Bryson’s new role was plastered all over the court dockets just a few weeks into the job.

One filing after another from death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner labeled Bryson, the state’s new prisons chief, as the main defendant in her attempt to halt her execution. It’s now been delayed over questions about Georgia’s lethal injection protocol, forcing Bryson to confront a vexing issue less than a month into his new role.

For Bryson, who didn’t discuss execution policy during a recent interview, it’s been a crash course in crisis management. He’s a longtime parks official who was tapped in early February to lead the sprawling Corrections Department. Gov. Nathan Deal has not only entrusted him with carrying out executions but also implementing his criminal justice initiative, including a new phase that guts a part of his agency.

It’s been a sudden rise for Bryson, who spent much of his 32 years in state government with the Department of Natural Resources before Deal tapped him to run the $1.1 billion Corrections Department. That track started when he took his first job at the age of 15 as a state wildlife officernear his hometown of Waycross.

“I knew pretty shortly after that there was no question in what I wanted to do,” he said. “I looked up to the conservation rangers.”

He led a major reorganization of department

Bryson worked his way up through the ranks after graduating from Valdosta State College, eventually serving as the chief of law enforcement for the Department of Natural Resources. About four years ago, when Mark Williams was appointed commissioner, Bryson was pulled out of uniform and made his No. 2.

It was a wonky job that Bryson relished. He engineered a pendulum shift to focus less on law enforcement crackdowns and more on education efforts. And he helped create a separate law enforcement division in what was one of the biggest reorganizations in the department’s history.

His promotion came on Feb. 2, when Deal tapped him to replace Brian Owens as corrections chief — and pegged him at a $160,000 salary that was $11,000 higher than his predecessor’s.

Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, said Deal was impressed by Bryson’s experience, his resume and a “commitment to the governor for a goal-oriented achievement which includes fully implementing criminal justice reform.”

Williams, his former boss, said Bryson’s day-to-day experience in managing state facilities and his background in strategic planning “prepared him to lead one of the largest agencies in state government.”

Death penalty just one issue Bryson faces

Georgia has one of the busier death rows in the nation, and each execution puts Bryson and his department squarely in the spotlight. Death penalty opponents are eager to seize on any missteps.

“Killing someone is the most serious thing we do, and it calls out for greater transparency and openness,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who wants to abolish capital punishment. “I don’t know if we’re at the tipping point. But if these fiascoes, these botched executions, continue, the public will become increasingly uneasy with the death penalty.”

One of his toughest tasks, though, will be further from the spotlight. Deal wants broader changes to help smooth the transition of released inmates back into society, and Bryson will play a key role. The governor’s plan would create a new state agency that would oversee probation and parole supervision, likely by taking staff from the Corrections Department.

“What the governor has been working on the last several years makes a lot of sense. We need to focus on our core mission,” Bryson said. “We’ll be working on the back end of the legislation that pulls the probation component out of Corrections and into the new agency. It will allow us to more narrowly focus on our mission.”