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“Unconscionable and Unacceptable” Conditions in Georgia DOC With 57 Prisoners Murdered in Two Years

by Casey Bastian

In August 2022, during their federal civil rights trial for running down and fatally shooting an unarmed jogger, Ahmed Arbury, in Brunswick in February 2020, attorneys for father and son defendants Greg and Travis McMichael offered their guilty pleas on one condition: That the federal judge overseeing the case send their clients to federal prison. Why?

“In 20 years of doing prison work” in Georgia, explained Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) Executive Director Sara J. Totonchi, “I have never seen such horrific and chaotic conditions. The violence, the treatment of people who are ill, and the apathy of those who run the prisons are unconscionable and unacceptable.”

The McMichaels’ request was denied, as was a similar plea made by their fellow defendant in Arbury’s murder, William “Roddie” Bryan. However, their notoriety —stemming largely from the fact that Arbury was Black and his three killers were not —means they will likely be held in isolation in prison, so they won’t fully experience the conditions in which some 47,000 other Georgians live in state lockups—conditions that have deteriorated into what SCHR calls a “constitutional crisis.”

Nearly innumerable reports describe rotten food and moldy, mildewed housing quarters overrun with vermin and flooded with sewage and feces from inoperable plumbing. There is brown, polluted “drinking” water, and for those who get sick or injured, a lack of access to medical treatment. Mental health treatment is just as scarce, with prisoners languishing in abusive long-term isolation. Leaked videos have recorded bloody prisoners lying untreated, along with the sound of other prisoners being raped. Still more capture roaming gangs of prisoners armed with clubs, sticks, knives, and even machetes.

PLN has chronicled this devolution in 132 articles dating back over three decades. Now, after years of chronic staff shortages, unprecedented levels of homicide and suicide have been reached, culminating in a series of violent, deadly prison riots, including three in a three-month period in 2020. At SCHR’s request the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division has launched an investigation into DOC.

Responsible for managing 55 facilities across the state—plus another four privately run prisons—DOC reported a total prisoner population of 47,020 as of December 31, 2021, a big rebound from the 35,989 held a year earlier, after months of low admissions depressed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Georgia’s crime rate clocks in at 20th out of 50 states, but its incarceration rate is the fourth-highest. Worse, more of its prisoners die of unnatural causes than those in all but two other states.

But while Georgia is serious about its incarceration, it is apparently not as serious about ensuring prisoner safety and security with adequate staffing and maintenance of its institutional infrastructure. Staffing levels are so bad that between 2010 and 2021, as the prisoner population decreased by five percent overall, the number of guards fell by a whopping 35%.

With so few guards, DOC prisons have a murder rate four times that of the entire Atlanta metropolitan area. According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, 57 DOC prisoners were victims of homicide in 2020 and 2021, a nearly 300% increase over 2018 and 2019. The murders typically involved some form of stabbing, but they also included garroting, asphyxia due to manual strangulation, blunt force head trauma and even smoke inhalation.

Mortality data published in December 2021 by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) counted 89 prisoner homicides “committed by other prisoners, incidental to the use of force by staff, and not resulting from assaults prior to incarceration,” in all prisons in Georgia, both state and federal, from 2001-2019. That there were then another 57 homicides in the next two years in state lockups alone is prima facie evidence of something seriously wrong in DOC.

 By way of comparison, while Georgia was piling up those 89 prisoner murders counted in the BJS report, there were 83 state prisoner homicides in Texas, 158 in Florida and 304 in California, three prison systems far larger than the Peach State’s. No other state comes close, with 25 reporting ten or fewer prisoner homicides during that 19-year period. In fact, the BJS data reflects an overall decrease in prisoner homicides of 6.6%, though there was an uptick starting in 2018. That uptick was not isolated to Georgia, with the prisoner mortality rate due to homicide across America increasing from 10 to 12 per 100,000 prisoners by 2019.

What makes Georgia stand out is the sheer magnitude of death: From all causes, state prisoners died at a rate of 584 per 100,000 in 2021, and of those assigned a cause so far, 8.8% were suicides and 25.7% were homicides. If current trends continue, SCHR estimates the homicide rate in DOC facilities will reach an unheard-of 63 per 100,000—eight times the national rate. Suicides are already twice the national average at more than 40 per 100,000.

“Shouldn’t Have to Search Facebook to Learn About Deaths”

Between January 27 and July 13, 2020, six prisoners were murdered at Macon State Prison (MSP), a number that exceeded the total homicides reported for the entire DOC in any single year between 2014-2018. Over those years, DOC recorded a total of 29 prisoner homicides, but in 2020 alone it reported 21.

As SCHR noted, more people died by homicide in less than six months at MSP “than were killed in multi-year periods in other states’ entire prison systems.” Arizona’s DOC, for example, had only two homicides in 2019 and none in 2020. In state prison systems in Colorado, Tennessee, and Washington, prisoner murder rates “paled in comparison” to that of MSP, the nonprofit added.

Joshua Lester was 34 when he was killed while attempting to break up a fight in July 2021 at Central State Prison (CSP). He had been incarcerated only a few months when he was fatally stabbed by another prisoner wielding a homemade knife. Lester, who was serving a sentence for a parole violation originating from an obstruction-of-an-officer charge, was killed by a gang member who was in prison for a prior murder, according to his mother, Nancy Masters. She found out about her son’s death via a phone call from prison staff.

“[Lester’s killer] was just walking around,” she said. “He wasn’t in a separate section ... It seems they put inmates wherever they have a bed. They need to segregate them, the murderers and other inmates. And when there is gang activity, they need to do something because the guards are scared of them because it’s a big thing in the prisons.”

Another prisoner, Carrington “Sip” Frye, was only 17 when he was sent to MSP. Six years later, a week before his parole date, Frye was fatally stabbed in March 2020. He bled out waiting over 30 minutes for medical assistance to arrive. His mother, Jennifer Bradley, said a single guard was assigned to her son’s cellblock, which housed 188 prisoners. [See: PLN, June 2021, p.60.] She is still waiting for answers from DOC about the death, which she first found out about from other prisoners using contraband cellphones, who claimed Frye was stabbed by his cellmate. As for DOC, Bradley says that “[t]hey lied” and “gave me the runaround.”

“No one has apologized for what happened,” she said. “Nobody has held any type of accountability but instead they pretty much ignored me.”

SCHR attorney Atteeyah Hollie says that DOC is notorious for the stonewalling Bradley reported. “The only way to learn about deaths in [DOC] is to send endless open records requests and those documents are often not free and not informative,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to search Facebook to learn about deaths in the state institutions.”

State Lawmakers Hold Hearings on the Crisis

During a hearing before the Georgia House Committee on Crisis in Prisons held on September 23, 2021, a guard testified about understaffing at Lee Arrendale State Prison, the state’s largest for female offenders, saying that “we lack the ability to get [prisoners] to our medical facility due to the fact that we lack the number of officers to get them up there and also because we don’t have enough medical staff to be able to treat all of them.”

“Recently I was assigned to look after 400 inmates [by] myself,” the guard added. “Practically speaking, you can’t [respond to any incidents that may occur]. In those kinds of situations, you have to take into consideration your own safety against their safety.”

Sip Frye’s mother testified at the same hearing, talking about her son and the issues he faced in DOC.

“For the most part he was strong,” Jennifer Bradley said, “but there were some things he couldn’t help but to speak out about, like once hearing screams and later finding out someone was raped ... ignored and extremely delayed medical calls ... having to take showers with a man guarding the door with a knife ... being served food that wasn’t even fit enough to be tossed in a pig’s sty ... or being summoned by words like, ‘Hey, you inmate.’”

The stories Bradley relayed are corroborated by SCHR, which pointed to a “disturbing” video it received. Shot on a contraband cellphone, the video depicts “an incarcerated man with a leash around his neck” who is “crawling down the stairs of a dormitory and being led into a cell, presumably to be assaulted, as other incarcerated men slap and film him.” There are no guards seen in the entire dormitory for the duration of the video.

“Concerned citizens, family members and civil rights organizations—as well as photographs and videos leaked to social media and through other channels—have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons,” noted Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who is helming DOJ’s investigation.

Another mother who testified at the hearing was Stephanie Lee. Her son, Justin Wilkerson, suffered from mental illness and made multiple suicide attempts before he was killed by his cellmate at Smith State Prison on January 6, 2021. Lee said Wilkerson reported several times when guards took him outside to be assaulted by his cellmate. She accused DOC of further failing to protect her son by not addressing his mental health needs through proper medication. In fact, Wilkerson’s autopsy showed no traces of his prescribed anti-psychotic medication.

“In other states, there are laws to protect first offenders from being placed in close cells with lifers,” Lee testified. “I would like to advocate for the change in honor of my son. The [DOC] failed to protect Justin and placed him directly in harm’s way.”

Other testimony at the hearing created a bleak image of neglect and lack of care for DOC prisoners, with witnesses placing much of the blame on a lack of security due to inadequate guard staffing. That negligence doesn’t result just in homicides. Many other prisoners have been stabbed, assaulted or extorted in what was described as the “lawless environment that prevails” throughout DOC, especially at MSP.

Stratospheric Rates of Self-Harm

Negligence also results in preventable suicides at DOC prisons, where incidents of self-harm are at crisis levels. According to BJS data, the national rate of suicide for the incarcerated in 2019—the last year for which data is available—was 27 per 100,000. But in Georgia prisons, both state and federal, the rate was two-thirds higher, at 44 per 100,000.

Like homicide rates, the suicide rate in state prisons increased significantly between 2018 and 2021. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution counted 17 in 2018, rising to 25 in 2019 and 30 in 2020. Even after the prison population dipped during the pandemic, DOC still recorded 25 suicides in 2021. In the first quarter of 2022, there were nine more, setting a pace that will exceed the previous year, the investigation noted.

But the overall numbers hide deplorable spikes at certain prisons, like Valdosta State Prison, where the suicide rate since 2017 is 342.2 per 100,000—over ten times the national average. It is 244.3 per 100,000 at Georgia State Prison and 157.4 at Phillips State Prison.

Back in September 2020, when the 19 prisoner suicides DOC had recorded in just nine months reflected a rate just twice the average in state prisons nationally, SCHR declared that DOC’s suicide problem had reached a “crisis point.” That rate was also nearly twice what was recorded in Alabama prisons, frequently cited as the worst in America.

DOC facilities throughout Georgia have received complaints for years from a litany of civil rights groups, family members, and prisoners, who all describe “inhumane conditions” that also exacerbate rates of suicide.

One of the most recent to take his own life was Ricky DuBose, 29, who was convicted of overpowering and murdering two DOC transport guards in June 2017. [See: PLN, Nov. 2020, p.62.] He hanged himself in his cell at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison on June 26, 2022, just over two weeks after a state judge sentenced him to death for killing the guards, Curtis Billue and Christopher Monica.

At Georgia State Prison (GSP), where SCHR says 30% of DOC’s prisoner suicides have occurred since 2017, 1,500 “medium-security general-population, mental-health and problematic male adult” offenders are held in a “safe and secure” facility, DOC says. But as SCHR has asserted, “In every respect, [GSP] has failed to meet this mission.” Records reveal that the prison has “engaged in a persistent pattern of housing severely mentally ill people in conditions unfit for human habitation, leading to numerous suicides.”

Far too many men suffering from mental illness are locked in their cells 24 hours per day for weeks at a time at GSP. Nearly all of those with diagnosed mental health issues are denied access to appropriate psychiatric care, since the prison’s mental health caseload simply overwhelms available resources. So prisoners go months without accessing mental health providers and appropriate prescribed medications. One prisoner even lit himself on fire in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Instead of receiving treatment when they report suicidal thoughts or make suicide attempts, men at GSP are sent to the prison’s mental health crisis unit, known as D West II. There prisoners are subjected to revolting conditions, often without basic necessities and toiletries. Several reports allege that cells are “smattered with the blood and feces of previous occupants.” No mattresses or blankets are provided in many cells, so prisoners must sleep on bare metal bed frames or even the concrete floor. One mentally disabled prisoner reported that he was housed in a D West II cell without clothing, a mattress, soap, or toothpaste “for two periods between three and six weeks.”

Many men with serious mental illness housed at GSP also reported being held for excessive periods of time in “telephone booth-sized cages.” While confined in these cages, the men report being denied access to food, water, or even a toilet. GSP officials claim these cages are “intended for temporary confinement” during transfers from one part of the prison to another. Yet multiple reports claim GSP staff held prisoners in these cages for two or three days at a time. Prisoners have reported “vomiting from lack of food, huddling in the corner for warmth, and having to relieve themselves on the floor or in plastic water bottles.”

Lawsuit Filed, But Dropped After Prison Closure Announced

DOC allowed these practices to persist despite receiving notice of “serious deficiencies” in mental health services at GSP on July 10, 2019, when DOC’s Office of Health Services published Georgia State Prisons 2018-2019 Yearly Audit Report. In that report, auditors warned that a “remedial [mental health] strategy must be developed” because “deficits in lockdown services could lead to decompensation and possible completed suicides or other self-harm.” Administrators were also warned of the “emotional and cognitive” impacts caused by excessive periods of solitary confinement as well as “possible legal jeopardy” arising from continued neglect of prisoners with mental illness.

That prediction came true on September 10, 2021, when attorneys from SCHR and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP in Atlanta filed a putative class action complaint on behalf of three of some 300 prisoners held in GSP’s Tier II Program. Though it is supposed to be a 270-day program, prisoners often languished in solitary confinement for years, according to the complaint. It also alleged that over 70% of those held in the program experienced severe mental illness, yet most were not receiving treatment.

Between September 2019 and May 2021, at least 12 people in the program committed suicide, according to the complaint, which also alleged that prisoners rarely get out of their cells, except for an occasional shower, medical appointment, or legal visit. Rats and cockroaches crawled over sleeping men and their food. Many cells did not have functional plumbing or power. Living areas “reek[ed] of feces from accumulated human waste in unflushed toilets” because flushing mechanisms were controlled only by an understaffed complement of guards.

With a guard vacancy rate near 70% on the unit—it tops 50% for the prison as a whole—staff couldn’t perform basic duties, the complaint noted, creating conditions that “constitute torture in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture,” the report said, citing United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners that say they cannot be held in isolation for more than 22 hours without human contact, nor for more than 15 days total, regardless of the reasons for the prisoner’s separation from the general population.

The complaint also cited the American Bar Association’s Standards for Criminal Justice: Treatment of Prisoners, which recommends that “[c]onditions of extreme isolation should not be allowed.”

One recurring problem in Georgia prisons is inadequate staffing. Yet Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has made no substantive public mention of this issue. Instead, he is focused on a $600 million prison construction plan, half of which is going to build a new facility to replace the 84-year-old GSP on another part of its 7,428-acre site.

As that plan coalesced, DOC announced it was closing GSP on January 21, 2022, leading plaintiffs to voluntarily seek dismissal of the suit on March 8, 2022. See: Middleton v. Ward, USDC (M.D. Ga.) Case No. 5:21-cv-00334. But without promises from DOC that the same abusive treatment won’t relocate to the new facility, the announcement was about as satisfying “as serving pie crust and whipped cream with no filling,” tutted an op-ed at online news site The Georgia Virtue.

A Series of Preventable Tragedies Traceable to Poor Management

“GDC wants to build new prisons, but can’t staff the facilities they currently have nor keep them safe,” said an anonymous prisoner at Augusta State Medical Prison (ASMP).

He should know. ASMP’s capacity is 1,326 prisoners, but medical-care beds are in short supply. According to the Augusta Chronicle, “There are 95 hospital beds for acute care, 40 beds for patients in need of nursing care, 20 beds for long-term care, 15 beds for pre- and post-operation patients, and 20 beds for accommodating living”—a mere 190 beds to care for almost seven times that number of prisoner patients.

Failures in mental health treatment, staff negligence and excessive isolation have also led to preventable deaths at other DOC lockups, including that of Caleb “Jenna” Mitchell at Valdosta State Prison. After guards allegedly goaded the 28-year-old trans woman to take her own life, she obliged in 2017. The lawsuit filed by her parents led to a $2.2 million payout in December 2021 that was the largest in DOC history. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.38.]

Another prisoner who died at ASMP, Jimmy Lucero, was 19 years old and weighed 250 pounds when he entered DOC on November 4, 2015. But imprisonment triggered a major depression, and his weight began to plummet, along with his mental health. He reported hearing voices, but DOC psychologist Victor Stevenson determined that interventions were “not warranted.” By the time Lucero died of a massive pulmonary embolism on June 27, 2016, less than eight months after intake, he was 145 pounds and in catatonic state, with nurses noting that he “refuses all interventions and meds.” His estate settled a lawsuit filed against DOC for $550,000 on May 18, 2019. [See: PLN, Sep. 2020, p.15.]

As PLN has also reported, ASMP has been plagued with unsanitary conditions, including “garbage bags and empty boxes filling portable Dumpsters and spilling onto the floor” as well as staffing levels so inadequate that medical personnel warned they create “significant liability risks” where “lives are at risk.” [See: PLN, Sep. 2018, p.38; and Sep. 2020, p.15.]

Conditions within DOC facilities have long been a matter of concern. In making his pitch for funds to build two new prisons—including the $300 million facility to replace GSP—Gov. Kemp warned lawmakers in January 2022 that as the state “has focused on providing rehabilitative support in the community where appropriate for low-level, nonviolent offenders to avoid recidivism, our state prison population has become filled with increasingly violent offenders … [and the] … aging prison facility infrastructure was not intended to house the level of offender who resides there today, and it requires higher levels of staffing and facility maintenance to manage these dangerous environments.”

State Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs) says he understands Kemp’s position and why DOC would like to focus on deteriorating facilities. However, he suggests that it is only a “surface-level response to systemic problems.”

“Simply purchasing a new prison or building a new prison is not going to change the basic conditions that these people find themselves in,” McLaurin said of the state’s prisoners. “And the reason is because as a society we have lacked the political will to pay real attention to the torturous conditions that these people are facing.”

Wanting to focus on the GSP’s aging infrastructure and need for better security measures makes sense. But while modernizing prisons is a positive step for prisoners, Carolyn Maddux of the Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center believes the resources would be better spent on eliminating the underlying causes of criminality, such as mental health.

“I do wish that given Georgia’s incarceration rate is No. 4 in the entire United States, even though our crime rate is only 20, that [Kemp] would address the fact that we’re putting too many people in them in the first place,” said Maddux. She predicted a grim outcome for the governor’s plan: “When you build prisons, you build them to fill them.”

Pandemic-Related Pressures

The added burden of the COVID-19 pandemic stressed a system already plagued with weaknesses. Staffing shortages increased as guards fell sick, and many of them quit, afraid of the dangerous atmosphere and environment being created and not wanting to experience the inevitable violence.

DOC was also accused of violating pandemic protocols. “They are playing Russian roulette with everyone’s lives,” said Kimberly Williams, whose husband is housed at Montgomery State Prison.

An unidentified woman emailed a local TV station: “Since COVID started, [prisoners] haven’t been given any hand sanitizer [or] masks to wear … one of the inmates that passed away was in my son’s dorm. [DOC] treat them inhumane [sic]. My son was put in a holding cage because of a seizure for hours and no one checked on him.”

Hope Johnson of UCLA Law School’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project said that DOC stopped reporting data in March 2021; however, at that time Georgia prisons had the “second highest fatality rate among the reported cases,” she said. Johnson, whose project analyzes reported cases, tests administered, vaccinations and deaths in prisons and jails, said that “lack of transparency and consistency in data reporting by the [DOC] has made the task challenging.” That suggests DOC’s COVID-19 fatality statistics—93 prisoners and four staff dead at the height of the pandemic in early 2021—are likely low.

Though the state made a feeble attempt to reduce the prisoner population during the pandemic when the Pardons and Parole board increased early releases for hundreds of non-violent offenders, COVID-19 restrictions stressed the rest of the prisoner population. Prisoners were left confined in their cells 24/7 for weeks on end, often in deplorable conditions. SCHR reported that prisoners went lengthy periods without access to sufficient food, water, showers, or medical care.

Joan Heath, DOC Director of Public Affairs, said that “[w]ith regard to lockdown scenarios within [DOC] facilities, these can occur periodically for any number of reasons, including security, inmate movement, contraband discovery, and recently added COVID-19 quarantine protocols.”

But DOJ’s Clarke noted that “extreme staffing shortages” and “high turnover” among guards have been a “persistent problem” in Georgia, one that “can lead to inadequate supervision and violence.”  

Though Heath promised that DOC “takes staff and inmate safety very seriously at all of our facilities, and we are diligent in working to ensure staffing levels are consistent and appropriate for maintaining our commitment to public safety,” that the system’s poor conditions would lead to violence shouldn’t surprise anyone. Major riots were bound to occur.

The worst one broke out at Ware State Prison (WSP), which houses over 1,500 prisoners under “close supervision” in Waycross. SCHR describes the prison as “chronically and dangerously understaffed.” Two former guards said WSP was “lucky” to have ten of them on any given shift, though policy requires at least 30. It was also reported that senior administrators stopped mandating compliance with standard operating procedures, implementing alternative policies that created increased risk to staff and prisoners, such as “closing dorm control booths; requiring officers to carry keys on their persons; and insisting that a single officer supervise between one and four buildings.”

These accounts are corroborated by WSP prisoners, many of whom told SCHR that no guards conducted regular rounds in their housing units. In the administrative segregation unit, meant to house prisoners in protective and lockdown status, there were “frequently no officers supervising prisoners from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.,” SCHR reported.

As late July 2020 approached, “gross understaffing and mismanagement” was taking its toll on the prisoner population at WSP, which had been locked down 24 hours a day for months. One prisoner reported that, aside from the infrequent medical appointment and occasional shower, he’d been in his cell five months, since the previous February. Conditions at the facility itself had “deteriorated to deplorable levels,” prisoners said, with one reporting that his cell was “mold-covered,” and he had to cover his face while sleeping to “block out the stench of sewage.”

When Prisoners Feel
Enough Is Enough

On August 1, 2020, the situation at WSP boiled over. Over the course of several hours, men poured out of their cells, setting fire to a guard golf cart and then lighting fires in the recreation yard. Reports indicate up to 700 prisoners were involved in the ensuing melee. Tearing through the prison, prisoners unlocked nearly every door in seven buildings. A prisoner in the lockdown and protective custody dormitory claimed that “nearly 100 prisoners with knives, sticks, and clubs” entered the dorm and removed prisoners from their cells.

Videos taken with contraband cell phones provided images of the disturbing incident. One showed two injured and bleeding men on the ground, with other prisoners pleading for medical assistance, attempting to tend their wounds with homemade bandages.

It was a long time before help arrived, SCHR alleged, noting that former WSP guards reported “only six officers were on duty in the entire prison that night.” To quell the disturbance, DOC required the assistance of the Georgia State Patrol, the Ware County Sheriff’s Office, and the Waycross Police Department. Alongside WSP’s Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT), law enforcement proceeded through the prison “deploying tear gas and smoke bombs while shooting people with pepper ball guns and flash grenades.”

CERT member Jonathan Daniels was one of the first to respond. The poster child for a DOC recruiting campaign—“Yea, I’m actually literally on the billboard,” he said—Daniels reported that on the night of the riot “[y]ou could hear explosions from inside” the prison.

“Inmates had gotten a hold of officers’ equipment, keys and radios,” he added, noting that at least 500 prisoners were roaming free when he arrived. Two guards had been taken hostage. “Both of them were bleeding,” Daniels recalled. “The unit manager was almost unrecognizable. His face looked like hamburger meat.”

Multiple staff members were injured or taken hostage, and several prisoners were shot or injured otherwise before guards regained control the next morning. On its website, DOC insisted the riot was an “isolated disturbance,” but otherwise provided no details except to promise that “[a]t no time during or after this incident did the facility lose power.”

Left unaddressed were conditions leading up to the incident. Nor did DOC acknowledge reports that power had been intentionally turned off, so while the facility may not have lost incoming power, turning off the switch appears to have been a tactical response to the situation.

Additional prisoner video shot on a contraband cellphone three days later on August 4, 2020, showed there was still no running water, no functioning toilets, and no power.

“Thank God for the illegal telephones, because if we didn’t have [them], we would continue to be lied to,” said Rev. Dwight Futch, both a former guard and prisoner before becoming a minister, who organized a protest after the riot for families of prisoners. He believes that abuses at that prison are not isolated incidents, but rather that they are replicated at many facilities across the state. As for the riot, Futch said that it should tell DOC, “When your prison goes up in smoke, that means it’s time for some changes because that means there’s something you did not do.” [See: PLN, Jan. 2021, p.55.]

Daniels confirmed the conditions in the videos: “I can’t be mad at somebody for being mad because the only toilet you have access to is spewing dirty water into the floor of the only room you have to live in.”

Other Riots That Broke Out Earlier

A similar, but smaller uprising had previously occurred at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (GDCP) on May 13, 2020. A tweet from Butts County officials at 7:00 a.m. the next day read: “Reports of an inmate riot at the [GDCP] drew a large response from our local public safety units around 2:30 AM. The riot has been brought under control and all inmates are secure and under guard, posing no threat to local citizens.”

It took a second tweet from a citizen at 8:26 a.m. to fill in the rest: “I heard it on the scanner. About 1:30 a.m. 400 inmates involved. Numerous agencies involved. At least one stabbing victim taken to the hospital.”

In fact, fires were set in some of the dorms. Prisoners were left alone, overcome with smoke, having to devise ways to survive. Multiple prisoners reported that they “spent the night believing they would die from the smoke inhalation.”

A post on the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak Facebook page from May 14, 2020, shared that exact concern in “Words from Death Row”:

“Riot took place in [GDCP] ... The combination of smoke & pepper spray made it impossible to breath (sic). We here on Death Row felt we were gonna die. The police ran & left us to our luck. No windows were open. This took place last night starting at midnight. We are suffering from smoke inhaling problems & nobody has checked on us. No medical staff nor police. We have old prisoners who aren’t able to breath properly. We are trying to get somebody back here with no luck. Am alive. I seriously thought I was gonna die. As I laid on the floor with tears in my eyes I saw the end cuz I couldn’t breath (sic) no air, I pass out & hours later to my surprise I woke up and bless to be alive.”

GDCP logbooks released by DOC note that there was a “staff shortage” when the riot broke out. Local law enforcement was required to intervene in that incident as well.

Macon State Prison also experienced an uprising on February 7, 2019, sending multiple prisoners to the hospital. DOC said that all injuries were non-life-threatening, and none was inflicted on staff. The agency also said that “[t]he incident is being investigated by our Office of Professional Standards; therefore, we have no additional details to provide at this time.” Yet no results of that investigation are currently available, over three years later.

Shortly after the riot at WSP, Daniels became another in the long list of DOC guards who have resigned, ending a job in law enforcement that he’d hoped would lead to a long career. “When you factor in the working conditions and the dangers, multiplied by the fact that you don’t have the help that you need, it’s not worth it,” concluded Daniels.

In the weeks following the riot, conditions continued to deteriorate at WSP. The staffing crisis worsened as other guards quit, including Danyelle Campos, whose resignation letter said “we are too short staffed to safely run the prison”

More reports on incessant confinement were provided by WSP prisoners, who also said the prison had begun interfering with contact between prisoners and their families—no longer collecting or distributing mail and disallowing access to email kiosks.

Yet another disturbance occurred at WSP on February 1, 2022, but once again details were not provided by DOC. Rather it was prisoner families who reported four stabbings. Videos shot on contraband cellphones showed prisoners hitting, punching and stabbing one another, while failing to record any staff response.

DOC has allowed conditions in its prisons to descend to unacceptable levels. The reported and documented instances of prisoner abuse are no longer being overlooked. Prisoners and their families, prisoner advocacy groups, civil rights groups, politicians, lawyers and prosecutors, state lawmakers and the media are all demanding changes. Has the time for holding the prison system accountable finally arrived?

At Long Last DOJ Intervenes

In September 2020, after the series of riots focused media attention on the tortuous conditions that Georgia prisoners are subjected to, SCHR succeeded in getting the attention of federal officials, too, in a letter to DOJ that accused DOC of violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

For three months prior, SCHR had sent requests directly to DOC for a comprehensive investigation and “immediate remedial measures” to be implemented. But in its letter, SCHR told DOJ that DOC officials had “failed to act in any meaningful way.”

“They have been silent,” said SCHR’s Totonchi. “They have refused our requests for records in some situations, and we have found them to be uncooperative in addressing this crisis.”

As SCHR informed DOJ, it is an organization with a small litigation staff and the only one that “systematically investigates and monitors” conditions in Georgia’s jails and prisons; however, it does not have the financial resources to address statewide issues. For these reasons, it requested that the DOJ investigate, and if necessary, initiate legal action.

Within 48 hours after the letter was sent, DOJ officials requested a meeting with SCHR, a response Totonchi called “highly unusual.”

“We’ve sent numerous letters to the [DOJ] over the last two decades and almost never get a response,” she said.

That began a series of weekly information-sharing sessions culminating with DOJ’s announcement on September 14, 2021, that it was opening a statewide investigation into allegations of unconstitutional conditions of confinement at DOC facilities. The investigation will examine whether DOC provides “prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.” It will also continue DOJ’s prior 2016 investigation into treatment of LGBT+ prisoners and whether they are “reasonably protected from sexual abuse by other prisoners and staff.”

The new investigation is being conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997 et seq. DOJ has conducted inquiries in prison systems across the country under CRIPA, which grants the department authority to investigate whether violations of prisoners’ rights are caused by a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.”

DOJ previously filed a CRIPA suit against the Alabama DOC in December 2020, alleging that it failed “to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fail[ed] to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subject[ed] prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.” The lawsuit was filed after DOJ provided “minimum remedial measures necessary” to correct deficiencies in the prison system but could not reach a settlement with the state DOC. [See: PLN, Apr. 2021, p.34.]

In Georgia, the DOJ investigation is being conducted with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Georgia. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Clarke said that “[e]nsuring the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated inside our nation’s jails and prisons, is a top priority.”

“The [DOJ]’s investigations into prison conditions have been successful at identifying systemic constitutional violations and their causes, fixing those causes and stopping the violations,” Clarke added. “We are investigating prison violence and abuse in Georgia’s prisons to determine whether Constitutional violations exist, and if so, how to stop them.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine for the Northern District of Georgia said his office “is committed to ensuring state prisoners are safe while serving their sentences” and would work “cooperatively with [DOC] to ensure the safety of all individuals in its prisons.” He has since been replaced by the office’s new permanent leader, Ryan K. Buchanan, in May 2022.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter D. Leary—who was confirmed to the post in March 2022—said that “[p]rison conditions that enable inmates to engage in dangerous and even deadly activity are an injustice, jeopardizing the lives of detainees, staff members and other corrections personnel.”

Added David Estes, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, “This investigation is an example of our office’s commitment to stamping out violence in our district, no matter where it is found, no matter who the victim is.”

“No prisoner’s sentence should include violence at the hands of other prisoners behind bars,” Clarke agreed.

Totonchi also made a statement on behalf of SCHR:

“We are so grateful to the DOJ for heeding our call and recognizing the human rights crisis that is unfolding every day in Georgia’s prisons. This is a significant step in our ongoing struggle for accountability for the lives that have been lost and for the people who continue to suffer behind the walls.”

Gov. Kemp and DOC Commissioner Timothy Ward declined to comment, with the latter deferring to a statement released by Heath which denied claims the agency engages in a “pattern or practice” of misconduct and neglect, asserting that officials are “committed to the safety of all the offenders in its custody.”

Refusing to Confront
Understaffing

Shortly after the DOJ announced its investigation, state lawmakers created their ad hoc House Committee to conduct a parallel investigation, seeking an answer to a simple question: What’s going on in DOC prisons? The committee listened to a variety of people including civil rights attorneys, prison reform advocates, the formerly incarcerated, the guard at Lee Arrendale State Prison (LASP) for women and loved ones of prisoners, like Bradley.

Rep. McLaurin led the session and asked the guard, “At any given time, about how many people are on duty to supervise the whole prison?

“On a good day, six to seven officers,” the guard responded.

“And that’s for how many people incarcerated?” asked McLaurin.

The guard replied, “At the moment, it’s 1,200 or so.”

That is one guard for every 200 prisoners. The federal Bureau of Prisons requires a ratio of one guard per 15 or fewer prisoners. Insufficient ratios similar to those at LASP occur throughout the DOC. Prisoners and their families believe that lapses in medical care, as well as burgeoning rates of homicide and suicide, result from this lack of staff.

SCHR also describes DOC as “grossly understaffed.” On January 1, 2015, 12% of all DOC positions were vacant. In June 2020, five years later, the vacancy rate was almost 30%. Approximately 2,740 guard positions were unfilled, and those on the job weren’t staying: Commissioner Ward told state legislators that the guard turnover rate had reached 49%.

Former guards at WSP claim that often only six of them were left to supervise 1,546 prisoners. During the same period at MSP, a vacancy rate of 46.8% left just one guard for every 400 prisoners.

Traci Mondragon and Chris Hickox were guards at WSP for three years. The married couple quit about a year prior to the 2020 riot. Both claimed it was normal for one guard to supervise hundreds of prisoners. Mondragon said supervisors would alter documents regarding the number of staff on duty. “They fudged numbers like that all the time, because they knew they could put such-and-such person’s name down because no one would question the fact that ‘oh yea, that person works all the time,’” she said.

Mondragon recalled an instance when a prisoner attacked her for inspecting his cell for contraband. “I had an inmate [wrap] his arms around me ... trying to throw me over the banister from the top floor, which the only thing below me is concrete and steel,” recalled Mondragon.

Guards complained about malfunctioning security cameras and handheld radios, but supervisors ignored their concerns. “They told us, ‘We’re not holding a gun to your head, if you don’t like it—leave,” said Hickox.

“Plenty of officers were scared, because [officials] said, ‘You talk, you’re fired,” Mondragon chimed in.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that working in prisons and jails can be stressful and dangerous. The profession has one of the highest rates of illness and injury, often after encounters with prisoners. But safety is not the only concern. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered DOC to cough up $429,000 in back pay it failed to give workers for overtime worked. BLS data pegs pay for DOC guards the third lowest nationwide, averaging between $27,936 and $45,884.42 annually in 2020.

Jose Morales joined DOC in July 1999 after retiring from the U.S. Army, eventually becoming the warden at Coastal State Prison. He recalls the turning point in staff numbers happened on December 7, 2010, when prisoners organized a labor strike that Morales called “a multiple sit-down.”

The strike was organized via text messages exchanged over contraband cellphones, he said, passed “[fr]om one prison gang to the next.” Prisoners warned guards to “get ready for what was coming.” Not knowing what they were talking about kept staff on edge. But the aim of the civil disobedience was to “secure more humane living conditions,” Morales recalled. “And so they actually sat down on their bunks or stairway or whatever, and they refused all of our instructions.” The strike lasted for over a week.

By that time, prison staffers “were very unhappy,” Morales said, having recently endured forced furloughs—unpaid days off—while the state wrestled with a budget crisis. “Which turned out to be, you know, for some people, a car payment,” Morales said. “Some of these officers had to supplement their income by getting on what we used to call welfare.”

According to Morales, many on the staff just walked away. While no one can prove that the 2010 strike was a “last straw” for staff, the record loss of employees afterwards—over 2,000 by 2011—has not been repeated since, according to DOC employment data. Morales said recruitment remains a tough sell. The only thing that would help is better pay.

“It should be in the neighborhood of $45,000 to $50,000,” he said, matching pay levels for guards in neighboring states such as Alabama and Tennessee. “And that would motivate them to come to work,” Morales added.

Refusing Transparency, Leaning
on Solitary Confinement

Prior to the state House Committee’s investigation, seven state representatives were already investigating conditions for women held at LASP. According to a statement from SCHR: “Women at [LASP] live in filthy cells with defective plumbing and electricity and receive limited access to cleaning and hygiene supplies. Chronic understaffing results in poor medical care, unchecked violence, and insufficient meal portions.”

Even the meals that are served are mostly inedible, the statement continued, and drinking water is brown and contaminated. One prisoner wrote, “I told the doctor how the water had an atrocious smell, that I was not the only inmate with symptoms of diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting,” yet she had to wait three days for medical attention.

Legislators arriving for an unannounced inspection were met at the prison entrance by Warden Allen Dills, who informed the group that all visitors must be preapproved by the DOC’s central office.

“From our standpoint, it’s a security concern,” Dills insisted. “Anybody can say they’re anyone.”

But Dills agreed to reach out to Commissioner Ward, who declined to make an exception. State Rep. Erick Allen (D-Smyrna) said, “The system is surviving by walling itself off from the public. They are sealed off from scrutiny. We have so much more work to do, and it begins with oversight,” something he believes prearranged visits don’t provide.

“If it was safe, it was humane, you’d think they’d want to show it off,” he said.

While these investigations are ongoing, Commissioner Ward believes the tortuous conditions caused by the staffing crisis are improving, pointing in January 2022 to the system’s rollout of JPay tablets begun seven years earlier. What he neglected to explain was that as many as half of DOC prisoners were by then without a device, thanks to breakage or loss over those seven years, and that DOC had just informed them in an email that same month there were no more devices coming.

Prisoner advocate Ashley Brown-Munoz asked, “What was the commissioner talking about? Tablets? In what way at all does possession of such a personal tablet make up for [lack of] officers?” Especially when half of the population no longer has one.

“To think [a tablet] is sufficient enough to take the place of staff is ludicrous,” agreed Pablo Sanchez, who is housed at Dodge State Prison. “People have been assaulted over them, robbed ... the real bottom line is that there is a shortage of officers and there is a lack of security. Tablets aren’t going to fix that.”

Another state lawmaker, Rep. Kim Schofield (D-Atlanta), wants to hold DOC leadership responsible through the passage of the Accountability in Corrections Act, a bill she has sponsored to allow prisoners and staff to present challenges to DOC decisions to the Office of Administrative hearings.

“We’re not holding the leadership accountable,” said Schofield. “We’re asking [prisoners] to transform, but the leadership has not had any responsibility or accountability on how they transform.”

Others are using the courts to impose accountability and responsibility upon DOC, with numerous settlements in recent years and other lawsuits pending. In one, a federal court in December 2021 certified a class of hearing-impaired state prisoners demanding accommodation for their disability. [See: PLN, July 2022, p.22.]

Many other suits concern inadequate staffing and its corollary, solitary confinement, which prison officials turn to in an attempt to control the population in the absence of guards. As noted by former SCHR Senior Counsel Sarah Geraghty—who became a federal judge in the Northern District of Georgia in April 2022—“A civilized society doesn’t lock people in isolation cells for years on end. It [is] past time to move out of the dark ages.”

Prisoners describe solitary confinement as a “man-made hell.” Spending over 22 hours per day in a six-by-thirteen-foot cell with no human contact, no fresh air, and no sunlight, is truly medieval. Solitary confinement was increasingly used in American jails and prisons beginning in the 1980s as a way of controlling dangerous prisoners, punishing their misdeeds, or protecting vulnerable prisoners from the predators in the prison’s general population. Dozens of states and the federal government have built “supermax” prisons where solitary confinement is the sole purpose. Nearly 61,000 Americans, including the mentally ill, juveniles, and pregnant women, were in solitary confinement in 2017, according to estimates.

Lawmakers are now reconsidering this abomination, due to harrowing tales of excessive isolation and streaks of prisoner suicides. Critics of solitary confinement claim that it causes permanent psychological damage, which only serves to perpetuate recidivism. One of those critics, Rick Raemisch, is Director of the Colorado DOC. His predecessor, Tom Clements, was murdered in 2013 by a recently released prisoner who had spent seven years in solitary confinement. Colorado has gone on to adopt the nation’s strictest limit of 15 days maximum in solitary confinement, following the United Nation’s “Mandela Rules” (which are not binding in the U.S.). Raemisch asked, “When did it ever become okay to lock someone in a cell the size of a parking space 23 hours a day for years?”

In 2015, Timothy Gumm was housed in GDCP’s Special Management Unit (SMU) after a failed escape attempt. Though that charge was subsequently dropped and removed from his disciplinary record, he remained in solitary confinement for over five years.

Taking 11 pages of loose-leaf notebook paper, and without a lawyer’s help, Gumm filed a “longshot” laawsuit in federal court for the Middle District of Georgia. The handwritten complaint arrived in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles H. Weigle, who initially had “serious reservations as to the ultimate validity” of Gumm’s claims. However, Weigle noticed that many of SMU’s 180 prisoners voiced similar complaints, including lost contact with loved ones, weight loss—Gumm had shed 50 pounds—as well as being “deprived of almost any environmental and sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact.”

Weigle appointed SCHR attorneys, including Geraghty, to assist Gumm in his lawsuit, and they hired Santa Cruz social psychologist Craig Haney, a leading expert in solitary confinement conditions. Haney toured SMU in October 2017 and said, “I saw things there I’ve never seen before,” describing it as “one of the harshest and most draconian” solitary confinement units he had inspected. About 70 of the 180 prisoners were mentally ill and had not been diagnosed but seemed to be “unraveling psychologically,” he noted, adding that prisoners were “cutting themselves, smearing their cells with blood, eating their feces, swallowing batteries and razors in an attempting (sic) to kill themselves.” Haney called the prison dorm “bedlam-like,” and filled with the “cacophony of prisoner screams and cries for help.”

Haney examined recent suicides in SMU, including that of 45-year-old Jamie Green in 2017, who was sentenced to 50 years for child molestation and hanged himself after two years in solitary confinement. After a 2013 suicide attempt, Green was supposed to be receiving mental health treatment, but SMU offered none to him. On November 7, 2017, after losing an appeal of his conviction, Green wrote his sister and called SMU a “man-made Hell.” That sister, Kim Knott, received the letter two days later. Sensing that Green was going to hurt himself, she was about to call the prison when the phone rang before she could pick it up. A prison official then said her brother was dead. “Our hearts are crushed,” said Knott. “It’s a big empty hole in your heart that will never be filled. He didn’t deserve what he got.”

SCHR attorney Alison Ganem said, “People spend months or years in solitary confinement,” adding that “[w]ithout immediate action to address these unconstitutional and immoral conditions, more people are likely to die.” Haney concluded that SMU was housing some of the “most psychologically traumatized persons I have ever assessed in this context,” and he determined that the unit was operating “in clear violation of a widespread and growing national and international professional, legal, and correctional consensus.”

After Haney’s assessment, two amended complaints, and 18 months of discovery, the parties reached a settlement agreement in December 2018, under which prisoners must be allowed “certain personal property, visitation, telephone calls, access to commissary goods, showers three times a week, and assorted other conditions.” Prisoners in SMU also now are supposed to have the same access to food, hygiene, laundry and barbering services as the general population. The settlement also included attorney fees and costs totaling $425,000. [See: PLN, Sep. 2019, p.55.]

But if that settlement made headway at other DOC prisons, it was lost by the time Johnell Middleton, Jacori Hodges and Corey Holbrooks sued Commissioner Ward in September 2021 over the excessive time they were left in solitary confinement at GSP. 

While DOC bought a dismissal of that suit by announcing the prison’s closure, it shouldn’t take courts to compel the agency to address the rotten conditions in its prisons. Prison is the punishment; torturing prisoners is unconstitutional. Nor should a sentence of confinement become a death sentence.

Recalling 28 Prisoners Murdered in 2021

Of the 57 Georgia prisoner murders counted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 29 happened in 2020 and 28 occurred in 2021. These are not just numbers, though—each represents a real human being, one who was not sentenced to death and certainly not sentenced to a brutal murder in prison as a result of DOC’s negligence.

They include six prisoners killed in 2021 at Smith State Prison: Justin Wilkerson, 25, on January 6; Desmond Hill, 35, on April 9; Hiwatha Abdulcah Hakeem Jr., 36, on April 12; Derrick Dionte Deshun Harvey, 26, on June 25; Christopher Reynolds, 38, on July 1; and Christopher Redwine, 45, on September 27.

Four more prisoners were murdered at Baldwin State Prison in 2021: Jose Martin Ibarra Garcia, 41, on June 15; Edward McCloud, 40, on July 23; Jamari McClinton, 21, on August 11; and Bedarius Clark, 26, on August 21.

Three prisoners were slain in 2021 at Georgia State Prison: Christopher Dewayne Mathis, 37, on February 26; Fabian Garcia-Mata, 27, on September 10; and Troy Harvey, 34, on September 12.

A quartet of prisons recorded two prisoner killings each in 2021. At Augusta State Medical Prison, Terry Lee Bennett II, 43, was killed on January 10 and Ali Lamont Tanner, 45, on July 2. At Coastal State Prison, Kion Parks, 31, was killed on September 15 and Rufus Lee, 27, on December 14. At Hancock State Prison, Rashad Bolton, 29, was murdered on January 4 and Dwayne Zackery Jr., 22, on February 12. At Macon State Prison, Carlos Maurice Fisher Jr., 30, was killed on May 10 and Ryan Weston Darville, 37, on December 29.

Eight other DOC prisoner murders in 2021 happened at eight other prisons: Joshua Carl-Haynes Lester, 34, at Central State Prison on July 28; Jorge Renberto Ventura-Cabrera, 35, at Hays State Prison on June 5; David Henegar, 44, at Johnson State Prison on October 16; David Stone, 61, at Phillips State Prison on November 20; Curtis Mincey, 74, at Rutledge State Prison on July 22; Juan Arguello-Revelles, 38, at Telfair State Prison on May 7; and Christopher Gresham, 39, at Ware State Prison on September 29.  

Sources: AP News, Atlanta Journal Constitution, CNN, The Current, Douglas Now, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Georgia Virtue, Human & Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia, NBC News, Southern Center for Human Rights, USA Today, WABE, WJXT, WXGA, WXIA 

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