ROME, Ga. - New security installed at Hays State Prison has proved so effective thus far that officials are bragging that prisoners can't breach it, according to a senator who toured the facility Thursday.
Porcelain toilets that prisoners used to break apart and use pieces as weapons have been replaced with hardened steel. Cell doors with locks that prisoners once defeated with toilet paper or a finger now have electronic and backup manual systems.
Fixtures like light switches and air vents that could be dismantled and used as weapons have been covered.
"I don't know if there is a perfect system," said state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler. "But so far they've put their worst prisoners in the newly renovated facility and had no damage to the locks or the beds to the heating system."
On Thursday, the Republican senator from Rome offered the first glimpse of what has been undertaken inside the walls of Hays since four inmates were killed in an eight-week period ending in early February.
During the tour, Hufstetler wasn't satisfied with just looking at the newly renovated cells, and he asked to go to the building where the worst prisoners were kept. When he walked into the dorm, he said, he stepped inside with two convicted murderers and had a conversation.
"I felt secure enough that I went into the cell," he said.
Work is not yet complete on the new locking system and "hardening" of some cell buildings, said Hufstetler and Department of Corrections board members who toured the prison Thursday morning. But they said they are encouraged by what they saw.
Yet neither board members nor lawmakers were ready to ask questions about how Hays had deteriorated to such a point or what led to gang members controlling cell doors, free to roam at night and attack other inmates.
"My focus since January has been on correcting the problem," Hufstetler said. "I think that is appropriate at some point to do."
Hufstetler said the $2 million renovations at Hays have prompted movement among state legislators to ask for similar security upgrades at other prisons across the state.
There are nine Georgia prisons similar to Hays in population and with a similar number of mental health patients that the state would like to examine, officials said.
State Sen. Buddy Carter, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, wasn't on Thursday's tour but said that lawmakers realize there must be changes in security in Georgia state prisons.
"If it's happening at Hays, you can't convince me it's not happening elsewhere," Carter said. "It is a concern."
While lawmakers didn't elaborate on what might be done in next year's legislative session, Hufstetler said lawmakers want to add more money to the 2015 budget for security upgrades like Hays received.
To cover immediate projects, the Board of Corrections approved a $6.9 million bond issue at Thursday's board meeting, specifically for statewide security improvements. And officials say they will look to Hays as the example.
"I look forward to Hays being a model for the other similar prisons," said Department of Corrections Board Chairman John Mayes.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.