Dec. 19: 25-year-old Derrick Stubbs dies from a severe beating
Dec. 26: 27-year-old Damion MacClain dies after being strangled and beaten in his bed
Jan. 18: 31-year-old Nathaniel Reynolds dies after being ambushed as he is escorted back to his dorm
Jan. 27: Two Hays guards stabbed
Jan. 31: Southern Center for Human Rights calls for impartial prison expert to evaluate the violence at Hays and explore solutions
An Atlanta-based advocacy group is calling for an outside expert to examine what it calls the "unacceptable level of violence and security lapses" at Hays State Prison and other Georgia facilities in light of three recent killings at Hays.
In its letter dated Jan. 31, the Southern Center for Human Rights said it has received daily calls and letters from family members of prisoners who have been injured at Hays and other Georgia facilities. The center has been told that cell doors have remained broken, stabbings and beatings have been routine and gangs are in control of where inmates sleep at the maximum-security prison in Trion, Ga.
"We can't tolerate this level of trauma in prisons," said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney for the center who signed the letter sent to Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens.
"We can't eliminate all prison violence, but we can certainly take steps to reduce it," Geraghty said Monday in an interview. "The department has failed thus far."
So far the Department of Corrections has been mum on the letter. Inquiries seeking comment for this story went unanswered, though a corrections spokeswoman said late in the day that the department was experiencing problems with its email.
It's been six weeks since the Dec. 19 killing of inmate Derrick Stubbs. His slaying marked the start of a spasm of violence that has seen the killings of two other inmates in separate incidents and the stabbing of two guards.
Though some Georgia lawmakers have expressed concern over the situation at Hays, the letter from the Southern Center for Human Rights represents the most serious call to action thus far.
Following the killing of the third inmate, Nathaniel Reynolds on Jan. 8, correction officials said they put Hays on full lockdown and would keep it that way until they felt that conditions were safe.
But the two officers were stabbed early Jan. 27 when inmates were supposed to be locked in their cells.
Rick Jacobs, field operations manager for the corrections department, has said officials are examining every lock at Hays, but he cited security as a reason for not saying how many were broken or easily manipulated.
Last week, lawmakers began meeting with corrections officials about the killings and stabbings at Hays, but right now they're relying on the department to follow through.
"I'm not sure at this point what we can do," said state Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette.
Neal is chairman of the state properties committee, which oversees the Department of Corrections. He and other local lawmakers said they have been told that officials are addressing the problems at Hays. Lawmakers said they plan to monitor what corrections officials do.
Meanwhile, the advocacy group has plenty of ideas about what the Department of Corrections can do.
Hire an outside, impartial prison expert to evaluate the violence and propose solutions. Apply for a technical assistance grant from the National Institute of Corrections. Make sure all prisoners are sleeping in their assigned cells. Ensure that regular shakedowns are conducted to reduce the availability of cell phones, knives and other contraband.
Even as lawmakers met with officials by day last week, inmates and guards said there was unrest at night. At least twice last week guards had to use smoke grenades to get inmates to go back into their cells.
But so far this week there have been no reports of new problems at Hays.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...