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Ga. lawmakers call for action to combat violence, staff shortages in state prisons

“You would have to be sleeping under a rock in another country not to realize and not to understand the absolute danger that exists in the Georgia State Department of Corrections today,” said Sen. Randy Robertson

Phillips State Prison

Phillips State Prison in Gwinnett County. (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Jason Getz/TNS

By Carrie Teegardin, Danny Robbins
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — State legislators concerned about the rampant violence, massive understaffing and thriving criminal enterprises inside Georgia’s state prisons are calling for faster action and more money to address the problems.

“We’re all aware of the safety and security concerns within the state’s prison system,” said Rep. Matt Hatchett, R- Dublin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, as he introduced large spending increases in the midyear budget for the prison system.

The midyear budget and Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget call for tens of millions of new dollars for the Department of Corrections. At the same time, during a series of budget hearings for the ongoing legislative session, lawmakers aggressively questioned Department of Corrections Commissioner Tyrone Oliver about what steps he is taking to correct the system’s problems and about whether the additional money requested is adequate.

“Time is of the essence and we want to get this done,” Hatchett told Oliver at a January subcommittee meeting when discussing the need to do more to stop the use of contraband cell phones. “Hit us with a plan to ramp that up.”

The questions come after the AJC, in a series of stories last year, exposed extensive corruption among prison employees, widespread drug use and drug dealing inside prisons, record homicides and large criminal enterprises that operate inside state prisons — and victimize people on the outside — with the help of contraband cellphones. The prison system is also under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, which since September 2021 has been investigating prison violence.

The midyear budget passed by the House this week calls for spending $9.8 million on technology to combat contraband cell phone signals. The figure nearly doubles what Kemp’s proposal requested, with legislators asking the GDC to implement the technology at multiple prisons more quickly than planned. More scrutiny from legislators may come as they debate the budget for the 2025 fiscal year, which takes effect July 1.

“Everybody has heard about the cell phones in the prisons and what a problem that causes,” said Rep. Bill Hitchens, R- R-Rincon, chairman of the House Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee and former head of the state patrol, during a budget meeting this week.

Sen. Blake Tillery, R- Vidalia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the AJC that improving prison security is an important matter, especially as it relates to effectively combatting gangs and stopping cell phone communications. “We have to be vigilant and capable of making sure our own institutions do not advance that criminal enterprise,” he said.

The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t allow prisons to jam cell phone signals over concerns about interfering with emergency calls. But Georgia has been experimenting with technology that will combat cell phone use.

Oliver told the AJC that one “managed access” system requires the prison to be emptied to be retrofitted, but another less expensive system allows prisoners to stay in place and hardware is installed outside. ”While the long game is to work with the FCC to get them to allow prisons to jam the phone lines, the money in the budget will allow us to install those (outdoor) systems at four prisons,” he said. “It’s a great start, but this is a long-term endeavor.”

In another measure to address security, both chambers already have approved and sent to the governor a bill to up penalties for prison employees caught smuggling contraband, such as cellphones and drugs. The AJC’s investigation identified at least 360 correctional officers arrested since 2018 in contraband cases, but those who were prosecuted rarely faced prison time and some weren’t prosecuted at all.

“You would have to be sleeping under a rock in another country not to realize and not to understand the absolute danger that exists in the Georgia State Department of Corrections today,” said Sen. Randy Robertson, R- R-Cataula, the bill’s sponsor, when speaking to the Senate in January.

A push for better pay

Legislators also are honing in on vacancy rates for correctional officers. The GDC’s budget proposal calls for extra money for an aggressive recruiting campaign, along with pay increases next fiscal year. The starting salary for a correctional officer in Georgia is about $40,000.

During budget hearings, though, Oliver was repeatedly asked what more the state could do, with some lawmakers noting that Alabama now pays its correctional officers significantly more than Georgia.

Several, noting extremely short-staffed prisons and issues with turnover, pressed Oliver to request additional funds so that more could be done.

Oliver said repeatedly that he’s focused on improving the culture within the prison system to make jobs more attractive, instead of upping salaries alone. “You’ve have to create a culture where people want to come to work . . . " he said during an appropriations meeting in January. “They have to feel valued while they are there but then also feel like they’re a part of something.”

But some lawmakers say much more is needed. “I’m concerned about our prisons and in particular overall safety and conditions,” Rep. Scott Holcomb , D- Atlanta , told the AJC. “Much of what we heard during the hearings was about changing the culture.”

Holcomb said that culture shifts can help, but they can also take years to implement. He said more immediate action is warranted and called for an audit of the prison system.

`Some disturbing issues’

House Speaker Jon Burns, R- Newington, was clear in January about the need to confront problems in Georgia’s prisons during his speech at the “Eggs and Issues Breakfast,” the legislative session’s kickoff, saying the state had seen “some disturbing issues arise in our prison system.”

“In many instances, our prison system is overstrained, underpaid and understaffed,” he said at the breakfast. “This creates opportunities for criminals to orchestrate criminal activity from inside prison walls. We’re going to look at ways to crack down on that, help recruit and retain correction officers and increase penalties for contraband and corruption in our prison systems.”

Sen. Josh McLaurin, D- Atlanta, a supporter of changes in the prison system, said he was encouraged to hear Burns mention the prison crisis. That points to a heightened interest among lawmakers to deal with the problems plaguing Georgia prisons, McLaurin said.

“Set aside for a minute partisan differences or policy differences about how to look at prisons, even just the fact of looking at prisons and acknowledging we have a crisis we need to do something about is a step in the right direction,” he told the AJC.

McLaurin cited the AJC’s series as one factor that helped bring the issue to the forefront. He also credited Oliver, who took over as GDC commissioner at the beginning of 2023, as being “ten times more transparent” than his predecessor, Timothy C. Ward, in acknowledging problems.

Still, further changes in prison operations may hinge on how the governor views the prison system problems, and Kemp hasn’t acknowledged serious issues within the Department of Corrections.

“I think it would do wonders for the prison system if we had a governor who, for example, was as vocal about addressing the crisis inside prisons as Speaker Jon Burns is starting to be,” McLaurin said.

When the AJC asked the governor’s office this week about any plans to address violence and other prison system issues, Kemp’s press secretary, Garrison Douglas, said the governor’s budget proposal “reflects his vision for a safer, healthier and even more prosperous Georgia.”

Douglas said pay raises for correctional officers should address staffing issues. He also said money for mental health services would go to multiple agencies, including the prison system. Kemp’s office didn’t comment when asked whether the governor was concerned about conditions in the state prisons.

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this story.

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