ATLANTA — The Georgia Department of Corrections can move quickly when it wants to.
More than 250 violent inmates have been transferred out of Hays State Prison.
Warden Clay Tatum has been replaced by one of his supervisors, corrections field operations manager Rick Jacobs.
Now the prison is doing a floor-to-ceiling tear-down to remake one and a half cellhouses into close-security units for the most dangerous inmates, state Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens told the Board of Corrections on Thursday.
All that has happened since a spate of violence claimed the lives of three inmates inside Hays starting Dec. 19 and a fourth last week as he was being transferred to another facility.
Creating the maximum-security units involves stripping out mirrors and bolting beds to the walls, Owens said. Toilets and other fixtures are being replaced with stainless steel -- "hardening it up" in corrections terms -- to keep inmates from breaking off parts.
Meanwhile, the rest of the prison will become a medium-security facility, he said.
Citing security, Owens declined to give more details about how he and other corrections officials plan to fix Hays, but he assured the board that everything possible is being done.
"Sometimes the most challenging part of this business is protecting inmates from inmates," he told the board. "But it is our obligation and our duty to get that done. Ultimately that responsibility lies with me."
Owens declined to say why the deterioration went unchecked over time. That investigation is "ongoing," he said.
Human rights advocates who have spoken about the increasing violence at Hays and other close-security prisons in the state said some of the measures seem to be good.
"I think they're taking some good steps," said Sara Totonchi, director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "But I wonder if these steps are more Band-Aids than true solutions."
Totonchi, who attended the Board of Corrections meeting, pointed out that sending the worst criminals to other prisons doesn't fix the problem; it just moves it somewhere else.
She also questioned why the commissioner wants to put so much money into fixing Hays before bringing in an expert to assess problems and suggest solutions.
"This violence has escalated to a level the department has shown they can't handle," she said.
Corrections officials also are also taking another security measure -- providing stab-proof vests for prison guards.
Officers on second shift at Hays and at Telfair State Prison, where an officer was killed in October, are testing the equipment for 30 days, said Becky East, director of the Correction's Department's administrative division.
Once the department decides which vests work better, they will be given to the staff, she told the Board of Corrections.
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 ...