Hays State Prison replaces cell locks

Hays State Prison replaces cell locks

March 29th, 2013 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Hays State Prison is located near Trion, Ga.

Hays State Prison is located near Trion, Ga.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Hundreds of broken locks neglected for more than two years at Hays State Prison have been temporarily fixed, officials say.

Yet the mother of the second inmate killed in the wave of violence at Hays -- strangled and beaten in his bed late Christmas night -- still questions why the department waited to fix the locks until after prisoners starting dying.

"It should have been done years ago," said RoHanda MacClain, mother of 27-year-old Damion MacClain.

Acting Warden Rick Jacobs said in a written statement that the maximum-security prison in Trion, Ga., is now secure, but that a permanent fix for the locks will take more time.

Gwendolyn Hogan, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said the temporary solution was to install manual locks on every cell door.

Officers inside the prison say three units that house 375 inmates have heavy bolts slid through the outside of the cell doors to keep prisoners from slipping out of their dorms. But that doesn't keep prisoners on the outside from getting in, said a former officer privy to the information. All requested anonymity because they feared for their jobs.

Nevertheless, six weeks since Jacobs took over from former Warden Clay Tatum, the steady drumbeat of violence at Hays related to the broken locks and other security problems seems to have subsided.

State numbers suggest that the prison has been quiet since teams of tactical squads emptied the prison of nearly 200 homemade knives and nearly 140 illicit cellphones in January.

The latest monthly report from Hays shows that officers found only six weapons and six cellphones in February -- the lowest number in 14 months. No inmate assaults were reported, either. However, the shortage of correctional officers at Hays crept even higher -- to 17 percent.

After three inmates were stabbed or beaten to death in a six-week rash of violence that began with the killing of Derrick Stubbs on Dec. 19, Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens said it was a priority to make Hays safe again.

Rather than intervene, the Legislature has allowed the Department of Corrections to fix the problems.

Meanwhile, Hays officials have transferred more than 250 violent inmates elsewhere and ordered a floor-to-ceiling teardown to remake one and a half cellhouses into close-security units for the most dangerous inmates.

But one local lawmaker said officials eventually need to examine how the violence at Hays escalated.

"We've tried to get the house in order and then review the past [to see] what went wrong," said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome.

Since at least 2010, state audits have identified broken or malfunctioning locks and broken lights that signal whether a cell door is locked. While regular maintenance requests were filled out, records show that the security problems were never adequately addressed.

The temporary manual locks are an "immediate option to ensure the safety of the facility, offenders and staff while the department awaits the installation of permanent electronic locks," Hogan said last week.

The money to fix the locks and redo buildings is coming from a $3.5 million bond approved last year by the Board of Corrections.

Hufstetler said he recently has been told that repairs to Hays are costing the state between $1 million and $2 million and he wonders what can be done in the future to avoid getting to this point.

"We spent a good bit of money getting Hays back to what I hope is the place it should be," he said. "We need to put our money in preventive action fixing things in the future."

MacClain said administrators should have placed Hays on lockdown after the first inmate was killed. If they had, "there's a possibility my son would still be alive," she said.

"They took no precautions whatsoever."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.