published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Guards blame Hays State Prison higher-ups for security failures

Hays State Prison is in Trion, Ga.
Hays State Prison is in Trion, Ga.
Photo by Dan Henry.
UPDATED: Life and death at Hays State Prison

HOW WE DID IT

At least a dozen guards and former guards at Hays State Prison were interviewed for this story. Several said they received direct orders to warn inmates of shakedowns. Others were ordered to hand out the pizza or saw others do it the day after a June 30, 2011, shakedown, or learned through inmates or other guards that this was a reward because search squads didn't find many weapons. The guards didn't want their names used for fear of retaliation.

"Warning inmates of upcoming shakedowns places officers' lives in grave danger."

— Corrections officer of 20 years

A cluster of Georgia and Tennessee corrections dignitaries gathered at Hays State Prison in June 2011 to witness a prison under control. Dozens of officers in body armor massed to sweep through the cellblocks to demonstrate how Georgia corrections runs a prison with order and structure.

The showing that day prompted officials to label Hays the "new flagship" of Georgia prisons. But multiple guards and former officials at Hays say the demonstration was a sham.

Multiple officers say they were ordered by their supervisors the night before the search to go cell to cell and warn inmates that squads were coming to search for their homemade knives and illicit cellphones.

And if the officers didn't find contraband, inmates were told, they would receive a reward: pizza and fried chicken.

An after-action report documenting results of the search shows that tactical squads found just nine weapons in the entire prison. Guards believe the inmates either disposed of their weapons or simply found better hiding places.

The next day, about 400 pizzas were delivered to the maximum-security prison in Trion, Ga., and soon after, buckets of fried chicken, said multiple guards and corrections officials who asked for anonymity out of fear for their jobs.

Caleb McGill, manager of the LaFayette, Ga., Little Caesars, remembers the order because it was one of the largest the store has ever received. He said last week he had to bring his staff in early to start making pizzas and ask for other area stores to pitch in just to get the order filled.

This wasn't the first time inmates were warned before a shakedown -- a comprehensive search for sharpened metal, cellphones or other contraband.

Guards at Hays say administrators jeopardized their safety and that of inmates on at least four occasions over the past two years by warning prisoners of upcoming shakedowns.

Officers say the practice not only violated prison policy and fundamental security procedures, but undermined their authority and contributed to a breakdown in security that culminated with the killings of four Hays inmates over two months starting in mid-December.

This was just one way that officials put their careers before prison safety, the officers said.

"This number of murders can be linked directly to inadequate and forewarned shakedowns of Hays State Prison," said a 30-year officer. "Laws were and are being broken by telling inmates to hide their weapons so the tactical squads can't find them. Enough is enough."

The Georgia Department of Corrections didn't return calls or answer emails seeking comment for this report.

Yet since 2011, guards say, the same high-ranking official always knew or gave the order -- Deputy Warden Shay Hatcher. He is the No. 2 administrator at Hays and has been in charge of security since his arrival more than two years ago.

Hatcher could not be reached for comment.

•••

Wardens in Georgia have been known to lose their positions after poor results on the kind of search conducted at Hays in 2011, a former high-ranking guard said.

But a top performance can reap benefits.

When Hays won the facility of the year award last year -- the top honor for a prison in Georgia -- its performance on that 2011 visit that included a training workshop and the shakedown was cited as a factor. (The award was given in 2012 for performance in the 2011 calendar year.)

The number of weapons and cellphones seized at prisons is among numerous indicators reported monthly to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

And the less contraband found behind prison walls, the better those numbers look -- numbers that largely determine whether wardens and other prison bureaucrats get promoted, said corrections officials privy to that information.

Much like teachers looking only for results on a test, some Hays administrators became consumed with their performance on these reports and not with keeping order and safety, these officials said.

Guards also say the huge number of phones and weapons seized this January by special outside tactical teams -- 169 over 10 days and 44 in one day -- suggests that plenty of contraband is there for the taking if the shakedowns are conducted properly and inmates aren't warned ahead of time.

Criminal justice experts say weapons must be contained if authorities are to stay ahead of violent prisoners. Warning prisoners about impending searches so they have time to hide their weapons undermines security and puts the guards at risk, said Helen Eigenberg, a criminal justice professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Of any official who would breach such a foundational security principle, she said: "That's someone more interested in their jobs than safety. If there's one thing that's taken seriously in prison, it's weapons."

•••

The element of surprise is often the only thing guards have in their favor.

They find weapons tied to strings inside door jambs, tucked into cracks in the windows and stashed inside mattresses.

These officers swear to codes of conduct and are required to follow strict rules for shakedowns. The corrections department's standard operating procedures stipulate that shakedowns must be done regularly but not in a pattern that inmates can deduce.

The searches are necessary to ensure safety, keep dangerous contraband out, prevent inmates from escaping and to detect where the prisoners are making the weapons, according to corrections procedures.

A five-year veteran officer said that twice in 2012 -- in the spring and the summer -- he was ordered by a supervisor to go to each dorm and tell an inmate that shakedowns were coming. If they slid the weapons under their doors, guards would come and collect them.

He said he and his team instead whispered the announcement into each dorm, hoping no one would hear. But he said another team did warn the prisoners.

A Hays official said Hatcher ordered him in the summer of 2012 to warn inmates of a shakedown. The high-ranking officer said he refused. But someone else warned the inmates anyway, he said.

Others related similar interactions, detailing how they were ordered to give such warnings to inmates at least twice in 2012 and once in 2011. And at least once in 2010 a former guard remembers hearing the warning announced over the prison's loudspeaker.

These orders infuriated the guards.

"Warning inmates of upcoming shakedowns places officers' lives in grave danger," said an officer of more than 20 years.

•••

After three inmates were killed inside Hays in six weeks, records show that squads of 12 officers who specialize in restoring order to disturbed facilities began conducting shakedowns daily at random dorms. They found as many as 25 weapons in a single unit housing 62 inmates.

On Jan. 31, after squads had searched random dorms nearly every day for almost two weeks, the teams scoured the entire prison and still were able to collect 44 more weapons.

All the weapons, cellphones and drugs found in a prison are required to be documented in a monthly report that is sent to headquarters for review.

One official, in a meeting with all the wardens in the Northwest Georgia region, said he recalls being told that these reports determine how wardens are graded at corrections headquarters in Atlanta.

"This is your report card. This is how you're judged," he remembers being told.

But the official pointed out that the wardens have to sign off on the reports before they are sent to headquarters.

"They don't want to get in trouble," he said. "They're looking at their own careers."

And so, guards say, decisions up and down the prison hierarchy have been made -- to warn inmates, to look the other way as broken locks were left unrepaired and to allow overall security to deteriorate to unacceptable levels.

It's those decisions that officers both retired and current say made them begin to speak out.

Greg Hall, a retired lieutenant, remembers how upsetting it was to be ordered to hand pizza to Hays inmates the day after the June 30, 2011, search.

As he was putting the pizza onto paper plates, he overheard a jubilant inmate saying, "We get pizza if we have a good shakedown."

It was galling for Hall then, and it's still galling today, he said.

"I spent every day of my life fighting them, and then I'm going to give them pizza for being good?"

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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