Look At Georgia's Prisons, Damn It.

The system has fallen apart during the pandemic. People are dying. And it's your fault.

When I worked at the AJC, prisoners would occasionally send long hand-written letters to the paper, hoping to find a journalist ready to take up arms against a sea of troubles.

Most of the time, they went ignored.

Sometimes not.

It’s not that reporters don’t care. It’s that the prison system looks like this yawning maw of immeasurable, insurmountable, all-consuming need that poses a Lovecraftian threat to absorb the sanity and moral dignity of anyone who explores it. To look is to despair.

And so, we do not look. I sense that I’m not alone here.

You need to look now.

Prisoners are dying. Jailers are dying. And you, as a taxpaying resident of this state and perhaps a voting citizen in this representative democracy, bear some responsibility.

This is a newsletter about why crime has increased in Atlanta. I’m looking at this because the conditioning of prisoners to violence and the failures of the system to prepare people for re-entry have consequences on the street.

The labor shortage created by the pandemic has turned Georgia’s already-problematic prisons into murder laboratories. Too few correctional officers watch too many prisoners right now. Staff turnover last year was 44 percent. They’re more than 600 officers short, with some prisons at a quarter of their authorized staff.

Roughly 50,000 people sit behind bars and at least 20 of them have been killed this year, giving this community a murder rate roughly four times that of the city of Atlanta. It’s a three-fold increase over 2017. Seven of those murders occurred in the last five weeks.

At least one happened in the last 48 hours, a murder at Baldwin State Prison.

Thursday afternoon, Ware State Prison rioted, on the one-year anniversary of its last riot. A correctional officer, Julian Rector, was helicoptered away to Jacksonville. I am hearing, anecdotally, that another prisoner may have also been murdered in Macon Thursday.

“From what I’m seeing now, the biggest issue is staffing,” said Earl Chadwick, a moderator of UnEdited, Real Talk Right Now, a Facebook group in Waycross that has been paying close attention to prison problems. “People are angry and they lash out. … If there’s nobody to watch the inmates, the inmates run the prison.”

These deaths happened on our watch, to prisoners under the public’s protection. Alabama’s state prisons in 2017 had proportionately fewer murders, which nonetheless led to a Department of Justice investigation and a massive federal lawsuit.

One might wonder if any of the 29 suicides tabulated by the activist group They Have No Voice were also murders. I say that because Georgia’s prison system aggressively resists scrutiny. “We don’t have good data on deaths behind bars,” said Hannah Riley, a spokeswoman for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

State Rep. Josh McLaurin tried to look into this hell a couple of days ago. He and six other lawmakers showed up unannounced at the doors of Lee Arrendale State Prison, intending to inspect the women’s facility after the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a second warning letter speaking of unspeakable abuses — caked black mold, inedible food, violence and more.

In one case related to the Southern Center for Human Rights, a woman who had just given birth was effectively placed in solitary confinement. The sutures from a vaginal tear in delivery became infected. “She had to use toenail clippers to remove her own infected stitches,” Riley said,. “Women are coming back to prison after giving birth in the same clothes they wore, covered in the afterbirth.”

The legislators wanted to see the dormitories, kitchen areas, garbage areas, the medical unit and other areas, McLaurin said, “so we could get a sense of how grounded in reality these allegations were … and in particular to do it unannounced.” This is fundamentally nonpartisan bread and butter legislative oversight.

The warden quickly turned them all away.

I suspect it’s because they would have found what they were looking for. Warden Allen Dills demanded they make an appointment and refused to answer other questions, except in writing, McLaurin said.

I’ve asked the Georgia Department of Corrections for an explanation. In writing.

Turning away elected officials is a massive red flag. Legislators with a statutory responsibility to ensure that, you know, people in custody aren’t being murdered can’t get in unless a visit is a dog-and-pony show set up.

Look. We all know prison sucks. We pay little attention to it because we assume that someone from outside is watching things to make sure nothing we can’t live with is happening inside.

That indifference is harder to maintain when prisoners can hack tablets or sneak cell phones in — or have them delivered by prison guards — to record the horror show. There’s nothing mysterious about the violence, abuses and conditions: evidence is a Google search away.

I am choosing not to link to videos, because I do not wish to expose someone unwittingly to retaliation either by prison staff or other prisoners.

That said, the Southern Center for Human Rights noted in a letter to the Department of Justice that “These riots occurred after men were left locked in their cells around the clock for weeks or months at a time without access to sufficient food, water, showers, or medical care. Videos taken by incarcerated people and readily available on the Internet show extreme deprivations – injured prisoners covered in blood, prison dorms with no security supervision, groups of men roaming lockdown dorms armed with machetes, and cells with no running water or functioning toilets.”

Under conditions where prisoners remain locked down for weeks or months at a time, there’s no “correction” occurring. People are not learning trades. They are not receiving substance abuse rehabilitation. They are not being treated for persistent mental illnesses. They are not being prepared for release. They are, instead, trapped in cages with guards outnumbered 40 to one, trying desperately to survive.

To accept this is to accept that the penalty for, say, selling marijuana in Colquitt County is to be murdered by a gang in prison.

One answer to this may seem counterintuitive, given the predictable calls to get violent criminals off the street: let people go.

We can identify prisoners who pose little risk of violence or crime and get them out of the prisons before prison turns them into violence seekers … or before they become victims themselves, Riley said.

“If we’re talking about immediate de-carceration, the parole board could release people who are medically vulnerable or over 62 right now,” she said. “There is no need for the public to fear de-carceration. … There’s violence occurring now. People are being killed in prisons. That should be just as important as Katie Janness being killed.”

For all the talk about how Republicans intend to hang crime around Democrats’ necks in 2022, Republican leaders — specifically Gov. Brian Kemp — bear political and moral responsibility for the conduct of this state’s prisons.

The governor is free to act, even as the rest of us remain imprisoned by our shame.