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Violence, Security Lapses and Media Attention Lead to Reforms at Georgia Prison

A series of investigative news reports by Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Joy Lukachick, published from February to December 2013, revealed numerous problems in Georgia’s prison system – particularly at Hays State Prison (HSP), located around 40 miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee – and resulted in lawsuits, security improvements and the replacement of HSP’s warden.

While violence has increased in Georgia prisons over the last several years, it was not until four HSP prisoners were murdered within a two-month period that the media began to take notice. Prison officials blamed gangs and contraband cell phones for the spike in violence, but guards faulted their bosses, saying they were more focused on their careers than security.

Since 2010, at least 26 Georgia state prisoners have been slain by other prisoners; four HSP prisoners were killed from December 19, 2012 to February 5, 2013 alone.

Non-fatal assaults on staff and prisoners have been increasing, too. The Georgia State Prison has the highest number of incidents, with 251 prisoner-on-staff assaults in 2012 – an average of 21 per month. Guards have reciprocated the violence, reporting 265 uses of force on prisoners over the same time period. The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (GDCP) – the state’s highest security facility – reported 86 prisoner-on-staff assaults in 2012, the second-highest in the state.

There were signs of trouble in Georgia’s prison system before the spate of murders at HSP. At Telfair State Prison, two prisoners were killed between August and October 2012, while six prisoners were murdered over two years of escalating violence at Smith State Prison. Further, two guards were stabbed by HSP prisoner Brian Dukes in February 2012, and guard Larry Stell, 46, was murdered in a dormitory area at Telfair on October 11, 2012.

Conditions became so violence-prone that Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) Commissioner Brian Owens changed his number one priority from optimizing bed space in 2012 to “operating safe and secure facilities” in 2013.

“We have never seen violence in GDOC like we’ve seen in the last 1½ years,” observed Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney with the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), which called for an independent investigation into violence at HSP. The SCHR also filed suit against the GDOC for violations of the state’s Open Records Act, after prison officials demanded over $250,000 to produce documents related to security issues and prisoner deaths at Hays State Prison.

Another prior indicator of systemic problems in Georgia’s prison system was a December 9, 2010 peaceful protest and work strike by GDOC prisoners who demanded better food, an end to unpaid labor, improved conditions of confinement and respect for basic human rights. The protest resulted in a violent crackdown by prison staff. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.24].

Shakedowns and Pizza

“This number of murders can be linked directly to inadequate and forewarned shakedowns at Hays State Prison,” said an unidentified 30-year veteran guard, referring to the multiple killings at HSP. “Laws were and are being broken by telling inmates to hide their weapons so the tactical squads can’t find them. Enough is enough.”

Guards use the element of surprise to help them find contraband, which is often secreted in creative hiding places. Policy specifies that shakedowns should be performed at regular intervals but in a pattern prisoners cannot deduce.

The GDOC requires wardens to submit a monthly report documenting the number of weapons, cell phones and drugs found at their facility. “This is your report card. This is how you’re judged,” one prison official recalled being told at a wardens’ meeting. “They don’t want to get in trouble. They’re looking at their own careers.” Thus, there are incentives to minimize the amount of reported contraband.

HSP was declared the GDOC’s new “flagship” facility following a June 2011 training session involving Georgia and Tennessee prison officials (former GDOC assistant commissioner Derrick D. Schofield currently serves as the commissioner of Tennessee’s prison system). To demonstrate how securely Georgia prisons are run, dozens of guards in body armor swept through HSP in a mass shakedown looking for contraband. Only nine weapons were found during the search of the 1,683-bed facility.

Hays State Prison was named the GDOC’s 2011 facility of the year, and the June 2011 shakedown was cited as a factor in HSP receiving that top honor. Guards, however, said the mass search for contraband was a sham.

According to several guards, the night before the shakedown they were ordered by supervisors to go cell to cell, warning prisoners of the upcoming search for weapons and illicit phones. Prisoners were told they would be rewarded with pizza and fried chicken the next day if no contraband was found.

Caleb McGill, manager of a local Little Caesars restaurant, said he received an order for about 400 pizzas to be delivered to HSP the following day; it was the largest order his store had ever received. Soon afterwards, buckets of fried chicken showed up at the facility, too.

“We get pizza if we have a good shakedown,” retired Lt. Greg Hall recalled a jubilant prisoner saying. He added, “I spent every day of my life fighting them [prisoners], and then I’m going to give them pizza for being good?”

That was not the first time prisoners at HSP had been forewarned about an impending search. One former guard said prisoners were notified over the facility’s loudspeakers in 2010, while others claimed they were told to inform prisoners twice in 2012 and once in 2011.

“[W]arning inmates of upcoming shakedowns places officers’ lives in grave danger,” said a 20-year veteran guard.

In the spring and summer of 2012, prisoners were told to slide their weapons under the cell doors and guards would collect them, one veteran officer said. Another guard identified HSP Deputy Warden Shay Hatcher as the prison official who gave the order to notify prisoners about searches for contraband.

“That’s someone more interested in their job than safety,” noted Helen Eigenberg, a criminal justice professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “If there’s one thing taken seriously in prison, it’s weapons.”

Staff Shortages and Contraband

Hays State Prison came under intense scrutiny when the news media began questioning prison officials after four prisoners were murdered in less than two months. Derrick Stubbs, 25, was beaten to death at HSP on December 19, 2012; Damion MacClain, 27, was beaten and strangled a week later; 31-year-old Nathaniel Reynolds was murdered on January 18, 2013; and HSP prisoner Pippa Hall-Jackson, 19, was stabbed to death after being transferred to another facility on February 5, 2013. Stubbs and MacClain were in protective custody at the time they were killed.

“It shouldn’t have to take a total of four murders for people to say: ‘What’s going on? Something ain’t right in this prison,’” remarked Ken Hall, Hall-Jackson’s uncle.

Contraband weapons were clearly an issue with respect to some of the killings, but a shortage of prison staff also was a contributing factor.

GDOC guards were resigning or being fired at a high rate in 2012; more than one-third left their jobs that year. Although HSP is supposed to have 293 guards, 105 quit and 13 were fired during 2012.

“What made me [quit] was seeing the downhill spiral,” said one former guard. “When you’re seeing things get worse every day, not only seeing nothing done about it but blatantly people telling you to shut up, that’s downhill. It’s not going to get any better until it gets worse.”

By February 2013, HSP’s staff shortage reached a peak of 17 percent. On average, the facility had a shortage of 14 percent; staff shortages at other Georgia prisons ran as high as 30 percent. At Telfair State Prison, the shortage of guards ranged from 15 to 20 percent over a three-month period in 2012 when two prisoners and guard Larry Stell were murdered.

To deal with the dearth of staff, Georgia’s prison system resorted to overtime: The GDOC spent $1.1 million in overtime at Telfair alone in 2012. Normally, guards work 170 hours in a 16-day period, but some had 260 hours on their time sheets and were working more than 16 hours a day. Prison officials approved $300,000 in overtime at HSP from April 2012 to January 2013, which meant guards were working more hours and longer shifts.

“People are exhausted, and you don’t make the best decisions when you’re tired like that,” said an HSP guard. “It’s unbearable for a lot of folks.”

“When you start making budget cuts, you see staffing issues in every department,” noted state Rep. Jay Neal. “[The GDOC] works hard to make sure they have adequate staff.”

Indeed, a sign posted outside Hays State Prison read: “Hiring Correctional Officers. Entry level $26,754.” That was $2,000 more than the GDOC advertised on its website.

Yet people are not flocking to seek employment at HSP despite jobs being scarce in the area, with an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent. As one local blogger wrote, “You, too, can get stabbed with a piece of broken window frame for only 26k a year.”

Regular GDOC guards do not carry weapons or flashlights. They have only a set of keys, a radio and a pen. “They have a job that most police officers on the streets wouldn’t have,” said Joe Stiles, director of the Georgia Police Benevolent Association. He called for a pay raise for prison guards.

To deal with violence and contraband problems at HSP, prison officials sent tactical squads to the facility. Each squad of 12 guards is specially trained and equipped with body armor and riot shields. Their duties included shaking down the prison.

In January 2013, the squads confiscated 192 weapons and 137 cell phones at HSP; they found as many as 25 weapons in a unit housing 62 prisoners. By comparison, 537 weapons and 235 phones were discovered at the facility in all of 2012.

Over 5,000 cell phones and 11,000 weapons were found at the GDOC’s 12 high-security prisons in 2012. Smith State Prison had the most contraband that year, with 866 cell phones and 2,248 weapons seized. In May 2012 alone, guards recovered 101 cell phones thrown over the facility’s perimeter fence; that same month, seven visitors were arrested for attempting to smuggle in contraband.

“It’s not a mystery what [prison officials] should be doing,” said Professor Eigenberg. “When you see spikes in assaults, high levels of contraband, lots of [guard] turnover, those are serious signs of a serious problem.”

Faulty Locks and a Lawsuit

Contraband and staff shortages were only some of the issues at Hays State Prison. A 2011 state audit found that locks in prisoner housing units at the facility “could be easily defeated,” yet in spite of that warning no action was taken – with fatal results.

Faulty cell door locks contributed to the December 26, 2012 murder of HSP prisoner Damion MacClain, who was beaten and strangled in his cell at night when the doors should have been secured.

“[MacClain’s family] should sue the prison,” said Daniel Vasquez, a former California prison administrator. “I’ve worked in corrections all my adult life. I’ve had officers killed by inmates, inmates killed by other inmates, [but] I have never experienced that.”

An electrical engineer and contractor wrote to HSP’s engineer in 2010, advising that it would cost about $1,750 to fix the cell doors in each of the prison’s 10 units with lock problems, or less than $20,000 total. In the wake of MacClain’s murder, GDOC officials promised a “floor to ceiling” review of HSP.

A February 13, 2013 purchase order to spend $1 million at HSP stated in part, “Hays State Prison has had recurring problems with the cell door locks in its housing units. This situation has severe security implications in that breaches of the locks have resulted in attacks on inmates and staff.” Prison officials also paid $700,000 for a touchscreen locking control system.

Porcelain toilets – which can be broken to create weapons – were replaced with steel versions at HSP. Light switches and air vents were covered to prevent them from being made into improvised shanks. The GDOC also purchased stabproof vests for guards and transferred hundreds of prisoners from HSP to other facilities.

After the Board of Corrections approved a $6.9 million bond issue for statewide prison security improvements in May 2013, the GDOC again presented HSP as a flagship facility, citing lower levels of violence.

“I look forward to Hays being a model for the other similar prisons,” said GDOC Board Chairman John Mayes.

“I don’t know if there is a perfect system,” state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler observed. “But so far they’ve put their worst prisoners in the newly renovated facility and had no damage to the locks or the beds to the heating system.”

Not everyone was satisfied with the belated security improvements, though. Damion MacClain’s mother, RaHonda, filed a wrongful death suit in September 2013, claiming prison staff failed to protect her son, who had said he was being targeted by other prisoners because he refused to join a gang. She is represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“Ms. MacClain seeks to hold accountable those state officials who so little valued her son’s life that they ignored obvious signs that he and others at Hays were in danger,” said SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty.

The state has filed a motion to dismiss the case, which remains pending. See: MacClain v. Owens, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:13-cv-00210-HLM.

Job Security vs. Prison Security

One would think that the multiple murders, contraband problems and security deficiencies at Hays State Prison would be detrimental to the careers of the officials in charge of the facility. However, that evidently is not how things work in Georgia’s prison system.

HSP warden Clay Tatum was removed from his position on February 6, 2013, the day after Pippa Hall-Jackson was murdered by another Hays prisoner after being transferred to GDCP. Tatum, who was replaced at HSP by Warden Scott Crickmar, was not fired but rather reassigned to Montgomery State Prison – a medium-security facility; he was later transferred to Rogers State Prison. Wardens at 13 other GDOC facilities were shifted to different prisons in June 2013.

HSP Unit Manager Timothy Clark was promoted to chief of security for mobile construction for the entire state, while Deputy Warden Shay Hatcher, who was responsible for security at HSP, was promoted to warden at Rutledge State Prison effective July 1, 2013.

That Hatcher remained in a high-ranking position did not sit well with some prison staff, who blamed him for contributing to violence at HSP by notifying prisoners of shakedowns. “I think it’s appalling,” said one guard. Both Hatcher and Clark, who are named as defendants in RaHonda MacClain’s wrongful death suit, have a history of misconduct.

Hatcher’s record indicates that he was fired in 2000 for sexual harassment, for ordering a prisoner to simulate oral sex with another prisoner and lying to investigators. Four months later he was reinstated, and worked his way up through the ranks.

Clark was involved in an August 12, 2010 incident that began after prisoners attacked several guards. Then a captain, Clark ordered a tactical squad into the unit, shouting, “Give them something they can send pictures to their mommas.” Four prisoners suffered retaliatory beatings by members of the tactical squad; they were reportedly punched, stomped, kicked and hit with batons and a flashlight while handcuffed. The prisoners, represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, filed suit in federal court claiming excessive use of force; the case settled in February 2012 for $93,000. [See: PLN, Sept. 2012, p.24].

According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the nine prisoners murdered in GDOC facilities in 2012 were either gang-affiliated or victims of gang violence. Battling gangs has become harder, according to state officials.

“They used to be able to break up gangs from one prison to another, [but] when you have them communicating through cell phones, it’s more and more difficult,” said state Rep. Jay Neal.

Atlanta attorney McNeill Stokes has sued the GDOC at least 100 times over the past decade. He said most of the calls he receives from prisoners’ family members are about gang-related extortion, assaults and murders. “There are ways to control gang violence,” he stated, but prison officials are “just not doing it.”

In May 2011, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of one of Stokes’ lawsuits involving the 2006 gang-related killing of prisoner John C. Bradford and an assault on another prisoner, Troy P. Crumbley, at Calhoun State Prison (CSP). The appellate court wrote that there were “‘hundreds’ of weapons in the prison, and almost every inmate in Bradford’s dormitory owned or had access to a shank; prison officials refused to discipline inmates for possessing weapons; and gangs, which operated in every dormitory, were extremely violent, stealing, robbing, and committing acts of violence against white inmates in particular. There is also evidence that officials encouraged inmates to obtain weapons for protection, due to the dangerous conditions at CSP.”

In reversing the district court’s order of dismissal, the Court of Appeals stated: “Our decisions clearly establish that this evidence, at the very least, is sufficient to create a jury question on whether a substantial risk of serious harm existed at CSP.” The case was remanded and remains pending, with the district court granting in part and denying in part the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on September 30, 2013. See: Bugge v. Roberts, 430 Fed.Appx. 753 (11th Cir. 2011).

Little Accountability

Apparently prisoners, not GDOC officials, are the only ones being held accountable for the violence and murders in Georgia’s prison system. In November 2013, HSP prisoner Devann Michael Anderson, 27, received a 20-year sentence for stabbing Pippa Hall-Jackson to death. Ricardo Beltran-Gonzales, 39, and Leonardo Ramos Rodriques, 36, face murder charges for killing Nathaniel Reynolds at HSP. And Daniel Ferguson has been charged with murdering fellow HSP prisoner Damion MacClain.

Meanwhile, the problems at Hays State Prison continue, including a prolonged limited lockdown, staff shortages – which averaged 17.5 percent from July to November 2013 – and the December 11, 2013 death of prisoner Phillip Pearson, 42. Although the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated his death may have been a suicide, Pearson’s father, Charlie, said his son told him he was in fear of his life, and when he saw his son’s body there were bruises on his face. An investigation into Pearson’s death remains open.

“The prison won’t give us no information,” Charlie Pearson stated. “Whatever it is, they need to put a stop to [the violence]. They are somebody’s kids. To me that prison needs to be closed down.”

Sources: www.timesfreepress.com, www.odmp.org, www.courthousenews.com, http://coosavalleynews.com, www.jacksonprogress-argus.com, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, www.dcor.state.ga.us

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