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Witnesses slam Georgia prisons at legislative hearing

Lee Arrendale State Prison

By Dave Williams
Bureau Chief
Capitol Beat News Service

ATLANTA – Georgia’s prison system needs a total overhaul to stem the neglect and violence rampant inside prison walls, a Democratic member of the General Assembly said Thursday.

State Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, chaired a hearing that included jarring testimony from mothers of Georgia inmates who have died while in the state’s custody or suffered serious neglect.

“The level of human rights abuses is intolerable,” said McLaurin, chairman of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus Committee on Crisis in Prisons, which was formed to raise public awareness of conditions in the prisons. “We want to change the system. We want there to be a reckoning.”

Thursday’s hearing came a week after the U.S. Justice Department announced it has opened an investigation into conditions inside Georgia’s prisons following complaints from civil rights groups and others who have expressed concerns about inmate safety.

The federal agency cited deaths of at least 26 inmates in state custody by confirmed or suspected homicide last year and 18 so far this year.

The Georgia Department of Corrections responded to the announcement with a statement denying has failed to protect inmates in its charge from harm due to violence.

On Thursday, Jennifer Bradley told the committee she is still seeking answers following the stabbing death of her son, Juwon Frye, at Macon State Prison in March of last year. She said it was inmates – not prison officials – who first notified her of his death – and she still has not received his belongings.

Stephanie Lee testified that her son, Justin Wilkerson, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, made multiple suicide attempts before being killed last January after he was placed in a cell with an inmate serving a life sentence without parole for malice murder.

“The GDC (Georgia Department of Corrections) failed to address and treat his mental illness,” Lee said. “[Then], the GDC failed to protect Justin.”

Atteeyah Hollie, a lawyer with the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights Georgia’s prison system is guilty of a glaring lack of transparency.

Hollie said the agency hasn’t issued a press release following an inmate suicide in two years. Thirteen inmates died in state custody during the first half of this month, again with no word from the department, she said.

“We shouldn’t have to search Facebook to learn about deaths in state-run institutions,” she said.

That lack of transparency includes information on the spread of COVID-19 inside the prison system.

Hope Johnson, a data specialist with the UCLA School of Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, said the Georgia prison system’s COVID-19 fatality rate of 2.4% is second worst in the nation.

However, the data is incomplete because the department stopped reporting new deaths from the virus last March, Johnson said. The agency also removed data on the number of COVID cases among Georgia inmates in July, she said.

A correctional officer at Lee Arrendale State Prison, who declined to identify himself for fear  of retaliation, testified via cellphone the prison system is plagued by a shortage of guards and medical staff.

He said Arrendale has six to seven correctional officers on duty “on a good day” to watch 1,200 inmates.

“In these situations, you have to take into consideration your own safety versus their safety,” he said.

McLaurin said Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward was invited to testify at Thursday’s hearing but declined to attend.

At the end of the hearing, McLaurin said Democrats will continue pressing the agency to make needed reforms.

“The only way we can get change is telling these stories,” he said. “These problems won’t go away if we ignore them.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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