Families, witnesses detail toxic conditions at Georgia prisons

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Stephanie Lee shows the Georgia House Committee on Crisis in Prisons a picture of her son, Justin Wilkerson, who was killed by another inmate at Smith State Prison in January.

ATLANTA — Joshua Lester had only been at Central State Prison a short time before another inmate killed him in July.

His mother, Nancy Masters, said she learned of her son’s murder via a phone call from staff at the prison in Macon.

Lester, age 34 of Dalton, had been stabbed by an inmate with a homemade knife while trying to break up a fight, Masters said she learned later. He had been serving time for a parole violation following an obstruction of an officer charge. His killer, whom Masters said was also a gang member, is in prison for murder.

“(Lester’s killer) was just walking around. He wasn’t in a separate section. ... It seems they put inmates wherever they have a bed,” said Masters, who said she and her attorney will likely bring a lawsuit against the state for failure to protect, punitive damages and distress. “They need to segregate them, the murderers and other inmates. And when there is gang activity they need to do something because the guards are scared of them because it’s a big thing in the prisons.”

This is just one of many issues Masters and others have voiced as needed reforms to Georgia’s prison system, which is under investigation by the Department of Justice.

Neglect, insufficient inmate protection

Jennifer Bradley testified during the Georgia House Committee on Crisis in Prisons hearing Sept. 23 about her son’s March 2020 death.

Carrington Brye was stabbed to death a few months before he was set to be released from Macon State Prison. He bled out waiting nearly 30 minutes for a “critically limited crew.”

“For the most part he was strong, but there were some things he couldn’t help but to speak about, like once hearing screams and later finding out someone was raped ... ignored and extremely delayed medical calls .. having to take showers with a man guarding the door with a knife .. being served food that wasn’t even fit enough to be tossed in a pig’s sty ... or being summoned by words like, ‘Hey, you inmate,’” Bradley said.

Justin Wilkerson, who had mental health diagnoses, had attempted suicide several times before being killed by his cellmate at Smith State Prison in January, said Stephanie Lee, his mother.

She was aware of several violent instances against her son, including hearing from inmates that officers took Wilkerson outside and had his roommate assault him.

“In other states, there are laws to protect first offenders from being placed in close cells with lifers. I would like to advocate for the change in honor of my son. The Georgia Department of Corrections failed to protect Justin and placed him directly in harm's way,” Lee said.

Lee added the GDC failed to address his mental health needs by not getting him his proper medication, adding that Wilkerson’s autopsy showed no traces of his prescribed anti-psychotic medication.

Testimony continued painting a picture of neglect and lack of care for inmates, including one witness who revealed a female inmate was so desperate for medical attention post-pregnancy that she cut out her own stitches with fingernail clippers. Witnesses attributed much of the neglect and lack of protection to the lack of adequate staffing.

Staffing issues

In a 2020 GDC report, the agency noted that retaining correctional officers continued to be a challenge, noting that two-thirds of the agency’s separations were correctional officers, resulting in a 43% increase in correctional officer turnover. Correctional officers, in general, supervise and monitor inmates to ensure rules and protocols are being enforced.

In response to an email from CNHI News, a spokesperson for Georgia GDC stated the average pay for a correctional officers in its facilities is $36,244. The department declined an interview request and initially invited emailed questions.

However, after CNHI emailed questions relating to correctional officer protocols, evaluations, etc., the department declined email responses, stating the questions related to the active Department of Justice investigation into the Georgia prison system.

A correctional officer at Arrendale State Prison testified on staffing issues anonymously via phone at the prison committee hearing by way of State Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs.

“When it comes to medical care, we lack the ability to get them to our medical facility due to the fact that we lack the number of officers to get them up there and also because we don’t have enough medical staff to be able to treat all of them,” the officer said. “Recently I was assigned to look after 400 inmates to myself. ... Practically speaking, you can’t (respond to any incidents that may occur). In those kind of situations, you have to take into consideration your own safety against their safety.”

From 2001-2018, 75 inmate deaths reported in Georgia’s state and federal prisons were attributed to homicide, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. In 2020-21 alone, more than 40 inmates deaths have been attributed to murder or suspected murder.

The Southern Center for Human Rights sent a letter to DOJ in September 2020 asking the department to investigate the prisons' “deplorable” conditions, referencing the increasing murder and suicide rates, and neglect of persons with psychiatric disabilities.

Lack of transparency

Atteeyah Hollie, SCHR attorney, said the group also filed a lawsuit on behalf of men held in solitary confinement in Georgia prisons. During the hearing, she referenced a man with mental health issues who was confined to a cell everyday for two years at Georgia State Prison. At one point, a cell he was relocated to had a metal bed frame covered in blood and feces, she said.

Of the more than 300 men held in solitary confinement at GSP, 70% of them have psychotic disabilities; at least 12 men have committed suicide at GSP in the last two years, most of them in solitary confinement, Hollie said.

Deaths, she said, often go unreported to the public, noting that 13 people died in Georgia prisons from Sept. 6-13 this year but were not reported.

“The only way to learn about deaths in the Georgia Department of Corrections is to send endless open records requests and those documents are often not free and not informative,” Hollie said. "We shouldn’t have to search Facebook to learn about deaths in the state institutions.”

Lack of transparency by GDC was also reported as an issue for Hope Johnson of UCLA Law’s “COVID Behind Bars Data Project.” The project analyzed COVID data — reported cases, tests administered, vaccinations and deaths — within prisons in the U.S. and found that, of data reported by GDC, it had the second highest case fatality rate among the reported cases.

Johnson said of GDC reported data, 93 incarcerated and four staff members have died of COVID-19, though the numbers could be under reported. She added that GDC stopped reporting inmate COVID deaths this past March.

“The lack of transparency and consistency in data reporting by the GDC has made the task challenging,” Johnson said.

While the DOJ investigates the state’s prisons, Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta, wants to hold GDC leadership accountable through passage of a proposed state bill, the Accountability In Corrections Act. The act would allow staff and offenders to challenge GDC actions before the Office of Administrative Hearings.

“We’re not holding the leadership accountable. We’re asking (inmates) to transform but the leadership has not had any responsibility or accountability on how they transform,” Schofield said.

While demographic data was not available on the state level as it related to unnatural deaths — suicide, accident, homicide or drug or alcohol intoxication — in state prisons, a 2018 Justice Bureau of Statistics report shows the majority of unnatural deaths that occurred in prisons across the country have been among white inmates.

An estimated 82 per 100,000 inmates were white, 44 per 100,000 inmates were Black and 38 per 100,000 inmates were Hispanic. Fifty-three men per 100,000 inmates died of unnatural causes, more than double that of female inmates which was listed at 22 per 100,000.

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