Opinion: Inmates to Gov. Kemp: Here’s how to fix Georgia’s prisons

Special Report: Inside Georgia’s prisons
WAYCROSS, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER, 28, 2023: Razor wire and guard towers at the Ware State Prison, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, in Waycross, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

WAYCROSS, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER, 28, 2023: Razor wire and guard towers at the Ware State Prison, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, in Waycross, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Editor’s note: This opinion piece was written by a group of Georgia prison inmates who sent it to us with the hope that their ideas for improving safety, security and other conditions inside state prisons might yield positive changes within the Georgia Department of Corrections.

We shared the gist of their piece with the office of Gov. Brian Kemp and asked them to respond to the prisoners’ concerns. The viewpoint today from the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections resulted from that request.

Open letter to Gov. Brian Kemp:

When naval officers are given command of warships, their orders contain a sentence which essentially states “Your authority and responsibility are absolute.” This statement seeks to impress upon the new captain that regardless of who screws up on a ship, or under what circumstances that occurs, the captain bears ultimate responsibility.

While Georgia is not a warship, and your office is elective rather than appointive, the concept remains the same. Disasters which occur within the executive departments of the state are your responsibility.

It’s not possible to be a marginally sentient human being and not understand that the Georgia Department of Corrections [GDC] has become a disaster of monumental proportions.

Just look at the investigative reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The “junior officers” in charge of the GDC have not only run her aground, they’ve set fire to the powder magazines and somehow managed to misplace all the lifeboats.

You, sir, are the captain of this ship.

What follows are some suggestions for righting this ship, because its mission is critical to the people of Georgia. In the interests of transparency, the authors of this letter are stakeholders in this discussion because we’re “sailors” on this ship (inmates).

Everyone has a choice when confronted with problems: Be part of the solution, or part of the problem. We choose to be part of the solution.

An insiders’ view

The primary problem is that the GDC is hopelessly corrupt. There are upright and honest employees, but the overall atmosphere is one of corruption. GDC is grossly mismanaged by individuals who’re prime examples of the “Peter Principle” -- wherein folks are promoted until they’re not-quite-competent to do the job.

GDC is also excessively “inbred” to the point where the running joke is GDC stands for either Georgia Department of Corruption, or Georgia Department of Connections.

The mismanagement problem is exemplified by a systemic unwillingness to forthrightly address numerous issues. This has intensified the corruption.

The GDC is loath to take advantage of the expertise or assistance of any inmate or inmate group other than those whose motives serve the general corruption or personal agendas of staff and it’s downright afraid of inmates with educations or proven real-world experiences and success.


Some GDC corruption is the major sort, such as that allegedly engaged in by a former prison warden. The rest might be classified as petty, but the truth is that it’s all too often the precursor for the major sort. And if not the precursor, it serves as a motivation for not exposing others.

It’s assumed most employees sign on with the best of intentions, but what happens is they’re quickly immersed into a culture rife with corruption.

One example: Several prisons have “trades” programs. They were begun in the ‘80s to provide inmates with opportunities to learn technical skills which would help reduce recidivism. The training contracts were eventually terminated.

The “trades” facilities remained and were repurposed to do ostensibly “necessary” state work -- while all training ceased. They’re staffed by men who worked at these trades prior to incarceration. They make up an elite within their prison populations; thus they do everything in their power to maintain their positions. That includes being willing to do under-the-table work for GDC employees.

It doesn’t take long for employees to figure out they can avoid paying labor costs for whatever project they bring to the “trades” facility.

Wrecks of classic cars are completely restored by inmates essentially for free. Custom-made BBQ grills, restored furniture and repaired lawnmowers are other common “free” projects.

This seems benign, but doing so provides both inmates and staff with a source of power over those who receive the benefits of this labor. The result is anyone who’s ever benefited from any of this free inmate labor has been compromised and that plays into the hands of those who choose to engage in more obvious forms of corruption.

A solution: Transfer control of GDOC “trades” programs to the nearest technical trade school and demand that they return to their initial purpose of teaching viable trade skills to inmate students. Any state employees seeking work by these programs should pay reasonable costs, with all funds being used by the technical trade school to support the GDOC extension program.

Other corruption examples


A step in the serious corruption of GDC staff began around 15 years ago with the decision to remove tobacco products from the prisons. While made with the best of intentions, very little attention was paid to the ramifications -- which have been disastrous.

This was the beginning of the burgeoning black market within the prisons. Profits are amazing. Smuggling tobacco into the prisons is frequently the first way in which staff members are compromised.

A solution: Legalize the sale of tobacco in prisons and restrict smokers in the same way as businesses do. The question should be: Which is a greater state interest -- pretending inmates are going to quit smoking, or having one less issue to undermine the integrity of GDC staff?


The GDC is also awash in drugs. Two factors led to the current drug crisis: the explosion of gang activities in Georgia and the change in the demographic makeup of the GDC staff. Twenty years ago, the majority of GDC employees were men. Many were veterans. The racial makeup of GDOC staff mostly reflected society. Today, most GDOC employees are younger females -- frequently from the same neighborhoods where the gangs hold sway. GDC staff too often have close relatives and friends who are members of gangs. This demographic shift has contributed to many of the current problems.

A solution: Actively recruit more men and veterans, while aiming for a racial breakdown more closely reflecting the state of Georgia. No one would tolerate prison staffs being 90% white. Prison staffs which are 90% (or more) Black should be equally unacceptable.


Lack of managerial competency is a root cause of the corruption, and there’s no hope for the GDC to get its act together without taking drastic steps to reorganize and restructure. That can only be done by imposing change from outside.

GDC managers claim to be experts at “security,” but they have no clue about the sorts of security threats the GDC actually faces. They erect more fences with concertina wire, cover exterior windows with steel plates, conduct more “shakedowns,” yell louder and make more threats. This while completely missing dead bodies stuffed inside mattresses, or officers escorting “hitmen” to segregation units, inmates sexually abusing and mutilating victims, or dead bodies lying in day areas, etc.

GDC can’t figure out how to keep cell doors locked (or even functional), don’t know how to keep inmates out of dorms where they’re not assigned, think nothing about inmates wearing “free world” clothing in gang colors -- or even clothing approximating staff uniforms. They say nothing to gang members’ activity, while simultaneously threatening “civilians” for minor infractions of unnecessary rules.

There are not enough frontline officers (the current violence is partly attributable to this lack). And there are excessive numbers of central administrators and too many levels of management and support staff.

Some ideas for solutions

1.) Transfer all known gang members to high-security prisons, with each group separated from each other. Establish a system for renouncing gang membership to earn transfer to general prison population.

2.) Significantly increase pay for staff assigned to the street gang-heavy prisons.

3.) Revamp and greatly reduce the size of the management structure. Establish a centralized statewide promotion process and end the practice of promoting staff prior to having replacements at lower (frontline) levels.

4.) Push down managers and officers to frontline jobs. This should help improve security by ensuring that all housing units must be staffed at all times – period.

5.) Remove investigative functions from GDC and create an independent inspector general position and staff outside of the agency.

6.) Establish a security management group outside GDC to provide security managers for each prison (modeled on how the military uses command security managers as executive assistants to commanding officers to oversee the four basic facets of security: physical, industrial, informational and personnel).

7.) Require all mental health staffs to be physically co-located with the inmate mental health population and have a 24/7 presence in those units.

8.) Require strict compliance with standard procedures for inmate classification and assignment.

9.) Require accountability at all levels.

10.) Require prisons with enough veterans to fill 70% of a housing unit to establish a veterans program dorm and begin the reform of the prison environment from inside by leading with the veterans.

Gov. Kemp, you’re the “captain.” Don’t you think it’s about time to take the actions recommended in this letter? If you fail to do so quickly, that’s not in your interest or those of the people of Georgia -- it’s certainly not in our interest, either.

As author Fyodor Dostoevsky noted, The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

Very respectfully submitted by some of your loyal “crew.”

Maryland state authorities announced the guilty plea of 15 people, including inmates, civilians and a correctional officer, for their roles in a prison contraband conspiracy operating at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS