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Ga. DA warns prison conditions threaten public safety

The DA said a social media photo showing three inmates with a homemade shank and making gang gestures highlights security failures in the Georgia DOC


In this image captured from a social media post, Shane Tassi, center, displays a homemade shank and is making a gesture suggesting his gang affiliation. (Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office/TNS)

Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Distri/TNS

By Carrie Teegardin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — In an image captured from a social media post, Shane Tassi is with two other young men, all wearing white shirts and bright orange pants marked as Georgia Department of Corrections uniforms. Tassi’s in the middle, brazenly displaying a homemade shank and making a gang gesture that ties him to the Bloods in Milledgeville.

When local law enforcement spotted the photo and sent it to District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale III, he was outraged. Just days earlier, Barksdale had prosecuted 17-year-old Tassi in a trial where he was found guilty of murdering a high school student in Baldwin County.

That picture immediately made three points about security failures in the Georgia Department of Corrections, said Barksdale, whose Ocmulgee circuit covers eight counties in middle Georgia. “He’s got a weapon, he’s got access to communication to the outside world that is unfettered — and ... it only took him less than a week to get all this,” said Barksdale, who described Tassi as one of the most dangerous defendants he had ever prosecuted.

As the leader of an office that has been overwhelmed with cases involving prison violence, Barksdale has repeatedly urged Georgia to devote more attention and resources to fixing a prison system whose problems have been many years in the making.

“What I would say to the state government and anybody that will listen is this guy has just been convicted of malice murder of a high school student, sentenced to life without parole plus 80 years, and he’s basically rubbing our faces in it,” Barksdale said.

Barksdale’s comments came days after a stunning security failure that drew national attention to the GDC. A prisoner got a loaded gun and used it to shoot and kill an Aramark food service employee on Sunday at Smith State Prison in Glennville. The prisoner, Jaydrekus Hart, then shot himself. The GDC said Monday that a “personal relationship” existed between Hart, who worked the kitchen detail, and the 24-year-old employee, Aureon Shavea Grace. GDC said a suicide note left by Hart had been discovered in its investigation.

The GDC described the killing as an “isolated incident” but has yet to explain how a gun made its way into Smith State Prison, one of the most violent and troubled facilities within the GDC. The incident is still under investigation.

While it was unheard of before now for an inmate to kill a staff member with a gun inside a state prison, Barksdale, a Republican whose jurisdiction includes three state prisons, doesn’t see the incident as isolated.

“What occurred at Smith is tragic, but not surprising,” Barksdale said. “I’ve tried to convey the magnitude of the problems facing the Department of Corrections, but it seems we continue down a path of denial while more and more people lose their lives.”

Barksdale is especially concerned that people in prison can continue to victimize those on the outside by using cell phones to commit fraud or arrange violence.

The GDC said it had responded to the security issues related to Tassi, who was at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, a maximum security facility built in 1968. “We were made aware of inmate Tassi being in possession of a homemade weapon and contraband cell phone and he, along with two other inmates, received disciplinary sanctions for such,” GDC spokesperson Joan Health said in an email to the AJC.

In the video below, Gordon Graham discusses how to combat contraband in correctional facilities.

Heath said the GDC has repeatedly emphasized that contraband poses serious challenges to correctional systems throughout the country. Beyond contraband cell phones, she said, inmates make weapons from metal, plastic and other materials they can access in part because of the GDC’s aging infrastructure.

“Keeping these items out of the hands of inmates is a daily, ongoing challenge and we use any and all resources at our disposal to combat this challenge,” Heath said.

On Monday night, Gov. Brian Kemp announced the GDC would undergo an in-depth assessment. Over the next 12 months, consultants with Guidehouse Inc. will visit prisons, conduct interviews with stakeholders, work with GDC personnel and do research, before coming up with recommendations on changes to the system.

The prison system also has been under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice since September 2021 and is being examined by a state Senate panel, which is expected to report its findings by December.

Barksdale said he was encouraged by Kemp’s announcement that experts would be conducting a thorough review of the prison system. He said he was also extremely thankful that Attorney General Chris Carr is urging the Federal Communications Commission to take immediate action to allow use of cell phone jamming devices within state prisons and local jails.

Given the extreme understaffing at most GDC facilities, Barksdale also said he believes most of the people working in Georgia’s prisons are trying to do the best they possibly can, and he’s acknowledged that the problems are challenging, especially given the widespread use of cell phones and drones to orchestrate illegal activities.

“This a problem that has developed over the course of probably three decades, and it is hard to try to snatch that wheel and get the problem completely solved. I recognize all of that,” he said.

But he has yet to see Georgia invest the resources needed to address its issues, and he said it’s urgent to do so.

“My prediction is that we as a community will begin to suffer major casualties outside the walls of the prisons because of the contraband, i.e. phones, moving forward,” Barksdale said.

Concerns about how security lapses can lead to crimes outside prison came to light dramatically when 88-year-old Bobby Kicklighter, a beloved resident of Glennville, was shot to death in the middle of the night in 2021. Prosecutors contend that a Smith State Prison inmate had called a hit on a correctional officer, but Kicklighter was shot when the inmate’s associates went to the wrong house. Nathan Weekes, who is accused of orchestrating the murder, is also accused of ordering two other murders outside the prison.

While the Kicklighter case is outside of Barksdale’s circuit, his office has handled case after case involving disturbing and deadly violence by and against people incarcerated in Georgia’s prisons. Barksdale prosecuted Ricky Dubose, who was given a death sentence for murdering two correctional officers on a prison transport bus in 2017.

Given what he’s seen, Barksdale wants the state to understand that it’s essential to do more to secure its prisons.

“What is it going to take? How many people are going to get hurt?” Barksdale said. “These are the questions that I ponder at night when I think about keeping my circuit safe.”


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