* $1 billion: The Georgia Department of Corrections annual budget
* $49: Cost per day per inmate
* 33: Prisons in Georgia, 13 of which are close, or maximum, security prisons
* 56,000: Approximate number of inmates in the prison system
THE 3 VICTIMS
Serving time for: armed robbery
Died: Dec. 19, the result of a severe beating
Serving time for: armed robbery
Died: Dec. 26, after being strangled and beaten in his bed
Serving time for: murder
Died: Jan. 18, ambushed as he was being escorted back to his dorm
Hays State Prison was supposed to be getting better. After two convicted armed robbers scaled the razor wire fence and fled into the woods, kidnapping a woman at knifepoint along the way, lawmakers demanded change. State officials said they would beef up patrols, keep a tighter rein on inmates as well as guards. That was five years ago.
But soon attention to detail slipped again. Cellphones have proliferated. Cell doors have been left broken, some for more than a year. Not a week has gone by without a stabbing or beating. No one is spared. Last February, one guard was stabbed 22 times. Not long after, another was attacked in the chow hall. Both survived.
Now, with three inmates killed in a month, former and current guards, inmates and families say the danger is escalating and it's time to force order and security at the prison in Trion, Ga.
"An officer's going to come out in a box," said a former guard who asked to be quoted anonymously because he feared retaliation.
One Calhoun, Ga., father, Jim Meadows, says he was forced to pay $19,000 to inmates who threatened to hurt or kill his son, who was behind bars on a drug conviction.
"We might decide to wet him up," -- skin him red -- Meadows remembers being told over the phone.
Over the course of months, he complained. To the warden. Nothing happened. Then the ombudsman's office, the advocate for families. Nothing happened. He called the governor's office. Nothing. Finally, on the annual family day for the prison last May, he cornered the head of the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Meadows was told that the department would look into his complaint, but as of last week no charges had been made against guards or inmates, he said.
Meadows didn't want his son's name used because he is still getting calls from inside the prison though the son has been out for more than six months. Taunts. Threats.
Other people on the outside relay the same stories. Strange calls. Demands for money. And fears that the threats of violence will lead to yet another inmate death.
"[The Department of Corrections] just shuts us out," said Sarah Johnson, who has tried to have her husband transferred from Hays since the three killings, the most recent on Jan. 18. "As a family member they shut us out."
Hays is touted as a model for Georgia State Prisons. Last year, the prison was named facility of the year by the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Officials say they recognize the problems and are working on the facility's shortcomings.
Technology is outdated, inmates are getting more violent, the prison is 45 guards short, but everything is under control, said Rick Jacobs, the department's field operations manager.
"It's a very challenging environment," Jacobs said. "Our No. 1 priority is to protect the public, staff and protect inmates."
Since the most recent inmate slaying, the prison has been placed on lockdown, meaning inmates will be allowed out of their cells only for recreation and showers, he said.
Almost half of the 1,635 inmates at Hays are considered violent, the most dangerous of inmates -- murderers, rapists, those who have robbed at gunpoint. But Hays houses nonviolent criminals too: burglars, thieves, meth users and pot peddlers. The mix can create a dangerous hierarchy -- predators and prey.
Hays is one of 13 maximum-security prisons in Georgia. The prison has 248 guards on the payroll.
While correction officials won't say how many officers are on duty each day, multiple sources, including former state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, said within the general population of Hays only one guard mans each tower and another is responsible for a cell of about 62 inmates or a building of more than 120 inmates.
When state officials came from Atlanta to inspect staffing and conditions, Hays officials were known to call in off-duty officers to make it appear that staffing was higher, said a 20-plus year former employee who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retaliation.
"Bad things happen in prison," said the former guard. "By covering it up, you're not learning anything and no one is held accountable for poor decisions."
Now, since many of the doors at Hays don't lock or can be easily manipulated with a card or even a finger, some inmates roam the hallways, go into other cells or even other buildings, a former corrections administrator said.
This is a problem when violence breaks out, guards say, because investigators can't always trace crimes back to the perpetrators.
Some inmates don't ever get a good night's sleep, afraid they will be strangled or beaten to death in bed like Damion MacClain was on Christmas night 2012, family members of inmates say.
On one other night in 2012, 27 inmates were stabbed, a former guard at the prison for two decades remembers, and the violence occurred late at night after the cell doors should have been locked.
In the main area of the prison where only less-violent inmates are supposed to live, current inmates say they must share their cells with violent criminals. Some inmates say they live in constant fear for their lives.
And everywhere, it seems, gangs -- often organized by race -- wield power and influence.
"Gangs are running rampant," said an inmate who has been at Hays for eight years. He asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "They could lock them down, but they don't. Most of the staff members are scared of them. So they cater to them."
Guards say there is no room to lock them up; the maximum-security cells are all full.
Meanwhile, the violence at Hays seems to have reached an unprecedented level.
From 2001 to 2010, 25 inmates were killed in Georgia prisons, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Those numbers put the recent Hays deaths in perspective, said Sara Totonchi, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based advocacy group. Three homicides at one prison in one month's time is unheard of.
"In the last decade we can't recall three homicides in one month," Totonchi said. "That's truly a shocking statistic."
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 ...