ATLANTA - At the first legislative hearing to tackle the spike in violence in Georgia prisons, two state senators called on corrections officials to answer for how prisoners in many cases were able to predict their own deaths.
"This is long overdue," said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta."We need to move heaven and earth to address this."
Since 2010, 32 prisoners and one officer have been killed by prisoners in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections. In 2012 alone, Georgia had more homicides in its state prisons than several states had in the last 10 years.
Four of those slain prisoners in late 2012 and early 2013 were at Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga., where audits revealed many of the cell door locks hadn't worked in years.
Members of five families were called to testify at the Thursday hearing in the Georgia State Capitol held jointly by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. About 70 people crammed into the room, but no one from the corrections department attended. Nor did any invited North Georgia legislators.
Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said in an email that it was the officials' understanding that there will be a follow-up hearing to address concerns.
Before taking further action, Fort said, he will ask the corrections department to answer questions raised at the hearing.
"This has become an issue of great public concern," he said after the hearing. "I think [corrections officials] ought to communicate on some of these issues."
Among those who spoke was Lysander Turner, who held up a picture of his 27-year-old nephew Damion MacClain. MacClain, a convicted armed robber, was beaten to death and left to die in his bed on Dec. 26, 2012.
Turner, a former Angola State Prison corrections officer, spoke for his sister, RoHonda, who died in February after she tried for a year to get answers about how and why her son died.
Before Damion MacClain died, he told his mother "he wouldn't make it out alive," Turner said.
Yolanda Jackson told a similar story of her 19-year-old son, Pippa Hall-Jackson, who had been in the prison system's custody only two months before he was stabbed in the heart after stepping off a transfer bus from Hays State.
Fort read a portion of a letter Hall-Jackson wrote to his aunt a week before he died.
"I don't think I'm going to make it down here, honestly," Fort read. "I want you all to keep in touch because you never know what tomorrow has in store."
Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney for the prison advocacy center based in Atlanta, told senators that the center has requested multiple times that corrections officials take immediate steps to address the violence.
"Too many people have died in the Department of Corrections," she said. "The message that this communicates is that these are lives we value less than other lives, and that is totally incorrect."
In February 2012, attorneys sent a letter to Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens calling for action because of the spike in violence. The letter also warned that special measures should be taken at Hays because of the high number of assaults -- that was 10 months before the first in a series of five killings of Hays State inmates.
In a second letter sent in January 2013, attorneys called for an outside auditor to inspect Hays and other facilities because of increasing reports of out-of-control violence and corruption.
Corrections officials never responded, Geraghty told the senators.
"This is an egregious situation," Orrock said.
The Southern Center for Human Rights is suing the Georgia Department of Corrections over Damion MacClain's death. Turner will represent his sister, RoHonda.
One by one the families told similar stories in which their sons or nephews had been in fear for their lives, but said the corrections department didn't appear to do anything to protect them from the violence.
The last story got the attention of everyone in the room.
James Jackson said family members were told that his nephew, Detravia Bryant, had committed suicide at Ware State Prison. But when the funeral home received the body, officials called the family to come and take pictures because his body was bruised and it appeared he had been strangled.
A year later and after a second autopsy, Jackson said, the family hasn't even received a cause of death.
"That disturbs me," Fort said. "I'm trying to be objective here, but that disturbs me."
After the hearing, several family members said they're hopeful the hearing will lead to the corrections department being held accountable.
"I believe something will come of this," Turner said.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.