Not only that but the victims were both convicted armed robbers, a crime that in Georgia does not bring the death penalty. One of them was killed on Christmas night with a convicted murderer being held for the crime; the other died of causes still under investigation after being put in “protective custody” following a fight with another inmate. And, only a bit more than a year ago another Hays inmate was killed by a fellow inmate.
Thus, in about a week, Hays appears to have matched the death toll from violence of the entire Georgia prison system for 2012 – a guard was stabbed to death by an inmate at Helena, an inmate was killed by an estimated five assailants at Jackson.
It’s just more of the same. The most infuriating aspect for taxpayers should be that they are the ones shelling out good money to deal with problems that keep on having bad, and sometimes deadly, outcomes that seem to occur over and over again and never appear to end. Violence in prisons is but one – the plight of the poor, the homeless, the severely mentally ill, the children abused or killed while wards of the state have become such an ordinary and everyday background noise to living in our society that most tend to shut them out.
The worst are those that routinely make “news” that is relegated to a passing mention on broadcasts or consigned to the back pages, if at all, such as prison deaths, woundings, near-riots and so forth.
THIS PAPER has commented on Hays often over the years as it is in its back yard but Hays is hardly alone in having persistent problems perhaps related to those held within, perhaps related to the underpaid and understaffed guard force, perhaps related to poor administration. Not long ago the paper at Valdosta was blocked from investigating the more than 180 inmate-on-inmate, inmate-on-guard, guard-on-inmate assaults with injuries at the state prison there. Patient “medical records” the paper was told are, just like those of our readers, confidential. Only corpses don’t have such protection. And that’s just one of the roughly 30 “state prisons” that Georgia operates using about 15,000 employees at a cost of well beyond $1 billion a year.
Frankly, this has reached the point of being more than ridiculous. It is just plain offensive. And that is a view that should and probably is held by most citizens regardless of how low their opinion is of “the criminal element.” Some things just should not happen, period, and neither guards nor prisoners should face this level of risk.
With the governor and legislature embarking on a massive overhaul of sentencing guidelines in order to try to increase “community-based” reform efforts for nonviolent offenders and reduce the load on prison beds – Georgia has more than 50,000 in places like Hays, which only contains about 1,400 – there would seem to be urgent cause to look into what has gone astray inside the facilities themselves. The same stories on back pages keep popping up year after year after year.
There is something fundamentally wrong. A reaction far more extensive than GBI after-the-murder investigations has been in order for a long, long time. This is not meant to assess “blame” whether upon the nastiness of modern wrongdoers or understaffing/paying/training of guards or even the mechanics of the administration. It just isn’t working ... obviously.
CONSIDER THIS: Those confined on the official death row, putting off their executions for years if not decades with legal maneuvers, are far more highly protected, more segregated from the general population, than an armed robber serving time at Hays who has to mingle with cellmates who have killed before. And more likely to survive a year in prison.
This meant to imply that Hays isn’t trying to do things properly. Indeed, this past May, the Georgia Department of Corrections named Hays its “Facility of the Year.” Embarrassingly, this news was followed days later by a small report indicating four corrections officers were injured in a dining-hall fight ... the latest in a continuing series of such incidents.
Hays also a couple of years ago had prisoners join those at 10 other state lockups in staging a coordinated “sitdown strike” directed at abusive living conditions — the first such ever in the United States — and based on their constitutional right to petition for redress of their grievances.
Not long ago, in Rome federal court, four prisoners were awarded $93,000 in damages in a civil-rights violation case after they were beaten up, while handcuffed, by a dozen officers. Apparently lessons were not learned by the staff from the 1997 similar case involving a general “beat down” of the Hays population by a task force led by the then-head of the corrections department himself. That one resulted in a similar court verdict of $285,000 for 14 inmates. The taxpayers foot those bills and, one assumes, the prisoners use the proceeds to gorge on honey buns from the prison commissary.
YET, on the surface, Hays and other state prisons where problems routinely occur are not necessarily set up in a poor manner. The main compound with five buildings houses 136 prisoners apiece, indicating classification and separation of inmates by risk should be readily available. It also has a “special management unit” for 239 prisoners kept segregated – probably the “Mental Health Level II” offenders.
It has an annex holding 570 medium-security prisoners with 21 outside details using inmate labor. As most in rural Chattooga County know, that includes a big chunk of their “public safety” force ... a fire department.
Hays is roughly of the same size as what used to be the most notorious of federal hellhole penitentiaries – Leavenworth in Kansas. Hays has about 1,400 inmates and 400 staff; Leavenworth today 1,700 inmates and 500 staff. Yet Leavenworth, like most federal prisons, today has far fewer “scandals” than do Georgia’s prisons and indeed has become safe enough that Michael Vick spent some his dog-fighting time there.
So ... what’s wrong at not only Hays but also most of Georgia’s other state prisons where one must scour the back pages to find about negative things routinely occurring while never learning about the positive aspects and programs (and all penal institutions have some of those) because the lid is kept screwed down so tight on penal news even the people paying the bills haven’t much of a clue about services rendered or fumbled.
Contrast that to county jails, where an inmate slipping on a shower soap seems to get reported to the local media and public. On Christmas Eve, somebody set a fire in the Fulton County lockup and made the news. On Christmas night somebody had to be murdered at Hays to get that facility attention regarding the fact that something might be less than perfect.
THE GOVERNOR appears quite serious about changing who goes to prison and for what reasons in order to be more realistic about the entire approach to corrections. Part of that should also include having a different special panel crawl all over the state’s prison facilities to recommend how to repair what very, very obviously ails them as well.
“Live free or die” is a patriotic motto, not a penal code.