Opinion: The hellhole that is Georgia’s prison system screams for overhaul

AP File Photo/David Goldman / Prisoners stand while being processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, Dec. 1, 2015.
AP File Photo/David Goldman / Prisoners stand while being processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, Dec. 1, 2015.

The state Senate this month authorized a committee to take a deep dive into Georgia's murderous prison system.

Just days later, the warden at Telfair State Prison got stabbed by an inmate during a shakedown by officials looking to unearth contraband in a dorm. Inmates jealously guard their illegal cellphones, weapons and drugs.

The incident underscored the dire state of Georgia's prison system. Nothing says drastic changes are in order more than a warden getting shanked.

According to Department of Corrections numbers, Telfair is missing 76% of its essential workforce. There are just 36 correctional officers to do the work of 154. Again, three out of four guards are not there to watch 1,400 prisoners.

That means there are fatigued officers on mandatory overtime shifts, skeleton crews and a sense of systematic weakness that prisoners notice.

Telfair is not unusual. The department said its vacancy rate for correctional officers was 55% in fiscal 2023. In 2017, there were 5,478. Last year, 2,685. (There are also about 1,500 supervisory officers, which has largely remained the same since 2017.)

The annual turnover rate for guards was 40% in 2023.

That sounds bad. But it's an improvement, the lowest rate in five years.

Into this crisis comes the Senate Supporting Safety and Welfare of All Individuals in the Department of Corrections Facilities Study Committee. Or, as it's known, the SSSWAIDCFSC. It's headed by Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson, a retired lawman from the Columbus area.

He said the committee needs to conduct a "deep dive into this without worrying about being called racist or heavy-handed."

During our discussion, it was clear Robertson won't fret about being labelled hard-nosed. "We have to," he noted:

"quit being politically correct,"

"cut the (B.S),"

"stop being willows and start being oaks."

Remember, this is a guy who spent spent 30 years locking 'em up, so as a tradesman, he likes his hammer.

A portion of the nearly 50,000 prisoners, Robertson said, are "good people who made bad choices. Those people should come out of prison as good, or better than they went in, not worse."

But the rest, he figures it could be 70%, "are very bad men and women who rehabilitation is not on their to-do list."

DOC classifies 74% of prisoners as "violent."

Robertson says no prison service — rehabilitation, education, medical or mental health services — will work without safety and order.

The initial goal is to hire more guards, which has been a trick.

Robertson said higher salaries and benefits, as well as establishing a sense of pride in the work, is vital to recruiting.

Many are not up to that struggle.

A powerful series of stories written by the AJC's Carrie Teegardin and Danny Robbins found that guards are often young job jumpers with financial problems.

I called Paul Wright, a former prisoner who has published Prison Legal News since 1990.

"The state is competing with Walmart for workers," he said. "I can go to work for Walmart and no one will throw feces at me or try to kill me. And then they act surprised that no one wants to work in their prisons."

Georgia prisons had 37 homicides in 2023 and 31 in 2022. In 2017, there were eight homicides and nine in 2018.

There were also 40 suicides in fiscal 2023.

I called Democratic state Sen. Josh McLaurin, the yin to Robertson's yang.

In 2021, McLaurin and other legislators were turned away from a prison they showed up to tour unannounced.

He agrees Georgia must hire more staff and improve prison infrastructure. But there needs to be a change in culture, which will take time, he said. He noted that former Gov. Nathan Deal's prison reform, helpful as it was, was just "a drop in the bucket." There's got to be a couple reform-minded governors in a row.

"You have to be humanely focused on those on the inside so there's not a black hole that gangs can fill," he said. "Most of the gang violence that (Gov.) Brian Kemp is trying to solve starts inside."

McLaurin has raised his hand to be on the prison committee. But it's unclear if Robertson wants to hear the Democratic senator's arguments.

Hopefully the committee can see the forest for the trees.

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