According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, in 2020 alone, there were an estimated 25 suspected homicides at Georgia’s prisons and 19 deaths by suicide, twice the national average.
Despite requests from the Southern Center and Atlanta Journal Constitution, the GDOC has not provided an official count of deaths inside their facilities.
The extreme homicide and suicide rates at GDOC prompted the Southern Center to declare a humanitarian emergency. “We are beyond the crisis point and something needs to be done,” said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center. In September of last year, the Southern Center formally requested the U.S. Department of Justice to open a human rights investigation into the numerous deaths in GDOC prisons.
In the request, the Southern Center highlighted egregious failures resulting from understaffing at Ware State Prison and Macon State Prison. Geraghty said she has never encountered such neglect and abysmal conditions inside a prison in her 20 years as a prison reform advocate. She notes that the “scale of the problem is so great that federal intervention is necessary and warranted.”
One recent casualty was Carrington Frye. The 23-year-old Macon State prisoner was just a week shy of parole when he was involved in an altercation over a contraband cellphone. Frye was fatally stabbed in the chest and neck. Jennifer Bradley, Frye’s mother, reported that there was only a single guard on her son’s cell block, which housed 188 prisoners.
So far, the GDOC has done little to address the understaffing responsible for the crises in its facilities. According to Geraghty, the situation has grown more severe since the Southern Center’s request for a DOJ investigation.
Staff shortages stem, in part, from GDDC’s inability to retain guards. In fiscal year 2019, 78% percent of GDOC’s new hires were guards, but by the year’s end, 71% of them had quit. In an attempt to entice guards to remain with the GDOC, Governor Arian Kemp recently proposed raising entry-level salaries to $30,730 a year, a 10% increase over the current $27,936 annual salary.
Prison systems fail without adequate staffing. Operation failures produce a cascade of problems that accumulate at the expense of prisoners’ health and well-being. For instance, maintenance and upkeep suffers as repairs stop. Food service declines as prisoners stop working because they do not feel safe. The Southern Center documented instances at some GDOC facilities where prisoners had been denied access to showers for 22 days. Eventually, an already subpar prisoner health care system becomes nonexistent, especially for those with mental health issues. Staff become reluctant to attend to mentally ill prisoners’ needs in their cells or dorms because they fear to do so would jeopardize their safety.
Geraghty points out that staff shortages pose significant risk to everyone inside Georgia’s prison system. A riot erupted last August at Ware State Prison that left two guards and three prisoners severely injured.
Understaffing also critically affects normal administrative operations. Without enough personnel, prisoners are being housed for longer periods in temporary housing cells. “Often they’re left in those cages to urinate and defecate on themselves,” Geraghty reports.
As COVID-19 has spread uncontrollably throughout Georgia’s prison system, GDDC’s staff shortages have become magnified. So far, a total of 3,100 prisoners have tested positive; 88 have succumbed to COVID-19. An additional 1,482 staff have been infected with the coronavirus, leaving two dead.
Disturbingly, there are instances where prisoners who test positive are left in their cells without medical attention, while others are quarantined in “The Hole.” One 59-year-old prisoner with rheumatoid arthritis was given nothing but cough syrup and “something” for his headaches, according to his ex-wife.
The DOJ has acknowledged the Southern Center’s request for an investigation, with an update forthcoming, according to a DOJ official.
The GDOC, for its part, has failed to comment or respond to the Southern Center’s allegations. Continuing a decades long pattern of abuse, neglect and mismanagement.
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