Georgia math: Hays State Prison numbers don't add up

Georgia math: Hays State Prison numbers don't add up

February 19th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Georgia must have been trying out some new-fangled math to make its books balance at Hays State Prison in Trion.

So far, the Georgia math appears to be working as poorly as the malfunctioning cell door locks in a prison where four inmates died at the hands of other inmates in a matter of weeks.

The cell doors could have been fixed years ago for an estimated $20,000 according to letters from electrical engineer and contractor Michael Lovelady. Lovelady wrote to the prison engineer in 2010 that it would cost about $1,750 per 50-cell housing unit.

Each Hays' unit with known lock problems houses just more than 60 inmates, and there are 10 such units. So even rounding up to $2,000 per unit, the prevention would have cost less than the yearly starting pay of one new guard.

Never mind the cost of the almost-certain lawsuits from the families of four dead inmates or those from other inmates who've been injured: This is clearly a case where an ounce of prevention would have been far more valuable than a pound of cure.

Now not only is the state looking at "floor-to-ceiling" remakes, but prison officials also have issued stab-proof vests to guards. Costs for that? Good question, but no one seems to know.

Regardless of the vests' price tag, they can't begin to touch the ultimate cost of the short-term savings -- if you could call it savings -- from simply not keeping up with massive turnover in guard ranks.

That would seem to be more special Georgia math.

In the past nine months, Hays staffing has been as much as 16 percent down from its norm of 293 officers, and it has averaged 14 percent below full manpower in a prison that until last week held about 1,600 inmates.

A week ago, officials announced they would transfer 250 inmates from Hays as one of several "fixes."

In the meantime Georgia officials instead approved about $300,000 in overtime costs there.

By normal, real-people math, that's about the equivalent of 11 new guards -- if you consider the sign in the front of the prison now inviting applications for entry level correctional officers at $26,754 a year.

So, all this raises the proverbial "follow-the-money" question:

If the cell doors were a cheap fix, relatively speaking, and the overtime was at the very least saving the cost of the benefits packages for at least 11 guards, and the prison was still desparately understaffed, then whose budgets were looking unrealistically tight?

And why?

Could it be oversight? Could it be some bad management-by-objective program that dangles short-term budget outcomes for carrots and bonuses? Could it be as simple as bureaucracy's glacial speed?

One thing is certain. The buck doesn't stop with former warden Clay Tatum, who was replaced last week by one of his supervisors, Rick Jacobs.

As Georgia Police Benevolent Association Director Joe Stiles points out:

"It's time for the Legislature to wake up and smell the roses."

The truth is, it's long past time. Where for the past several years were state oversight checks and balances to respond to the lock problems and pry into whether guard turnover numbers and overtime costs made sense?

Where were the bureaucrats and the lawmakers whose charge it is to measure safety and sensibility against fiscal process?

Four dead inmates indicate a problem.

Could it be worse? Sure. What if the count was four dead inmates and a cell block or two of escapees into Chattooga County and North Georgia -- 40 miles due south of Chattanooga?

Someone in Georgia state government needs to pick up a magnifying glass.

Right now.