ALTO ― Corrections officials on Wednesday denied entry to seven state representatives probing allegedly inhumane conditions at Georgia’s largest women’s prison.
It’s just another example, critics say, of a lack of transparency by the Georgia Department of Corrections. The agency has yet to publicly address reports of a significant spike in homicides and suicides inside its 34 statewide facilities. And requests for information about everything from staffing levels to COVID-19 testing generally go unanswered.
“The system is surviving by walling itself off from the public,” said state Rep. Erick Allen, a Smyrna Democrat. “They are sealed off from scrutiny. We have so much more work to do and it begins with oversight.”
The legislators knew gaining admittance to Lee Arrendale State Prison without an appointment was a longshot. They were met at the main entrance gate by recently promoted warden Allen Dills, who informed the group all visitors must be vetted by the GDC’s central office.
”From our standpoint it’s a security concern,” Dills told the lawmakers, each of whom brought their official credentials. “Anybody can say they’re anyone.”
Dills then reached out to GDC Commissioner Timothy Ward. The commissioner, Dills told the group, was not going to make an exception.
Prearranged visits, said Allen, don’t allow for true oversight. “If it was safe, it was humane, you’d think they’d want to show it off,” the legislator said.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer
According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, conditions inside Arrendale — located in Alto, a 90-minute drive from downtown Atlanta — are “horrific.”
“Women at Arrendale live in filthy cells with defective plumbing and electricity and receive limited access to cleaning and hygiene supplies,” the center said in a statement. “Chronic understaffing results in poor medical care, unchecked violence, and insufficient meal portions.
”Meals are largely inedible and the prison’s water supply is brown and contaminated, according to the Southern Center, which has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate current conditions in each of the state’s 34 prisons.
“Despite sending two letters clearly documenting human rights abuses occurring at Lee Arrendale State Prison, the Georgia Department of Corrections has failed to meaningfully respond, placing the lives of COVID-19 patients, postpartum mothers, and incarcerated women at grave risk,” said Jesse McGleughlin, a legal fellow with the Southern Center. “The severity of the crisis within all of Georgia’s prisons cannot be overstated. This is an emergency and requires immediate action.”
One Arrendale prisoner detailed her experiences in a letter provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by They Have No Voice, a prison reform group.
The woman, serving 20 years on an armed robbery charge, said she was placed in lockdown after filing repeated grievances regarding stolen personal items. The AJC is not naming her due to fears of retribution by prison staff.
Once in lockdown, the prisoner said she found herself growing increasingly ill. She said she received no medical attention until the prison doctor made rounds three days later.
“I told the doctor how the water had an atrocious smell, that I was not the only inmate with symptoms of diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting,” she wrote. “I had lost an excessive amount of weight, and that there were not many other complaints because the other inmates knew to only drink water from the ice when it melts. Except the inmates that barely visited lockdown especially for extended stays, like me and a few others.”
Susan Burns, who founded They Have No Voice, said other prisoners have shared similar complaints about Arrendale’s water supply.
“Likewise, other facilities also have water quality issues,” Burns said. “We have seen vids of brown water from Macon State Prison and Autry.”
In her letter, the Arrendale prisoner also noted minimal officer presence. The Southern Center alleges two-thirds of the prison’s staff positions remain unfilled. “Now Hiring” signs surround the rural facility.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer
Staff shortages are not just an Arrendale problem. The GDC website lists 121 openings within Corrections for jobs including entry-level officers, deputy wardens and criminal investigators. Nearly 200 positions remain unfilled in the counseling, educational and food service fields, according to the agency.
As staffing has gone down, incidents of violence inside Georgia’s prisons have risen. In 2017, the GDC reported four homicides. Last year, there were 26.
Suicides are also way up. There were 29 last year, according to the GDC, nearly triple 2017′s total and among the highest rates in the nation.
The Southern Center has met with U.S. Department of Justice officials requesting federal intervention. In the meantime, there’s little that can be accomplished on the state level, said Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat who organized the Arrendale visit.
“The Legislature has an inherent subpoena power, but the majority has to exercise it,” McLaurin said, referring to the Republican Party.
STORY SO FAR:
The Georgia Department of Corrections has received increased scrutiny following reports by a human rights group detailing severe staff shortages and major increases in homicides and suicides. Prisoners have documented what the Southern Center for Human Rights calls “inhumane conditions,” recording videos of brown water and inedible meals. The GDC has not responded to numerous requests for information regarding these complaints, leading the Southern Center to request federal intervention.