Rot and violence at Hays State Prison

Rot and violence at Hays State Prison

February 8th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Hays State Prison as seen from a field behind the Guard Line in Trion, Georgia.

Hays State Prison as seen from a field...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Georgia residents surely must have wondered how long it would take, and how many horrific events would transpire, before state officials would finally address the reality that the Hays State Prison in nearby Trion - one of 13 maximum security prisons in Georgia - is out of control. Now we know. It took the violent murders of four inmates since Dec. 19, all by other inmates, and a protest by an Atlanta-based human rights group, to stir enough attention in Atlanta to get the supervisor of the prison's warden to oust the warden and take his place, at the least for the interim.

We doubt that would have occurred had not this newspaper's reporter, Joy Lukachick, written yet another one of her 20-plus reports over the last year regarding the shocking violence and out-of-control circumstances at the prison.

The number and scope of recent violent incidents is staggering, but it's not new. It's been at least five years in the making. For a prison designated as a maximum-security facility the laxity there is stunning, and the prison's internal security seems to be badly broken.

About half of Hays' 1,635 inmates are classified as nonviolent and segregated in a different cell block. But that means less than meets the eye. Inmates in the prison and wary guards -- there are 248 on the payroll -- report that locks in some of the prison's cell doors in the maximum security units are broken or easily jimmied, and have been left broken for more than year.

In the scenario that they describe, there are usually too few guards on duty, and violent inmates are often allowed to roam various parts of the prison -- their cell blocks and even other buildings -- to hook up with their gang members, and intimidate, beat or stab their prey. Late one night last year after cell doors should have been locked, 27 inmates were stabbed, a former veteran guard claimed.

Over the past few months, Lukachick has also reported how cellphones have become ubiquitous, allowing the most cruel inmates to extort other inmates' family members for ransoms to keep their loved ones from being violently beaten, cut or killed. One Calhoun, Ga., man told Lukachick he was forced to pay $19,000 to inmates who threatened to hurt or kill his son, who was in Hays on a drug conviction.

Hardly a week goes by without a stabbing or beating. Last February, a guard was stabbed 22 times. Not long afterwards, another was attacked in a cafeteria. A former guard, speaking anonymously to Lukachick for fear of retaliation, warned that "an officer's going to come out in a box."

Guards apparently have good reason to fear for their lives -- and thus to retreat so far that they leave prisoners in virtual control of their cell blocks. Various sources, including former state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, have told Lukachick that within the general population of Hays, only one guard mans each tower, and another is responsible for a cell unit of about 62 inmates, or a building of more than 120 inmates. During inspection visits, one guard said, off-duty guards are called in to mask the situation.

Yet inexplicably, the prison was named "facility of the year" in 2012 by the Georgia Department of Corrections. One has wonder how much DOC officials actually know about the violence at Hays, or whether other prisons in the state's system are even worse.

Given the escalating violence at Hays, it seems likely that Georgia Corrections officials are either out of touch, or have turned a blind eye to the problems, as is prone to happen in under-manned, under-funded prison systems. The wife of one inmate told Lukachick that the Corrections Department "shut us out" when she tried to get her husband transferred to another prison.

It is hard to believe that Georgia Corrections officials are unaware of the problems at Hays, however. This paper's reporters, and especially Lukachick, have explicitly chronicled the breakdown of order and the resulting violence there.

It seems far more likely that Gov. Nathan Deal's budget cuts for general services, and cash handouts and tax breaks to corporations, have fueled the breakdown. His negligence is abetted by the oblivious members of Georgia's Legislature, who are preoccupied by the lucrative donations and wining and dining they have allowed themselves to receive from the lobbyists who are so willing to grease their palms.

There is clearly a problem of inattention to violence at Hays, but the rot is more deeply and politically rooted in the Atlanta Legislature and Gov. Deal's office, where the blame really lies.