Rhonda Cook and Aaron Gould Sheinin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
TRION, Ga. — After three prisoner deaths in two months at Hays State Prison in northwest Georgia, state officials say they may have addressed one of the root causes of violence at the high-security facility: locks that don’t lock.
Yet, records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show several other high-security prisons — facilities rife with gangs, hardened criminals and constant threats of violence — continue to be plagued with doors that won’t lock, a problem one top lawmaker said needs to be explained.
Three years after an internal audit reported problems with locks, the Department of Corrections signed a $1 million emergency contract in February to replace cell door locks at Hays.
Some think that inaction was a factor in several prison deaths.
“It should not have taken the deaths of four Hays prisoners before the (Georgia Department of Corrections) made this a priority,” said Sarah Geraghty, senior attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Allowing the prison’s locks to deteriorate for years put officers and prisoners at risk and likely increased the eventual cost of lock replacement.”
Hays, which can house almost 1,700 violent men, has been one of the most dangerous prisons in the state system for years. Inmates use contraband cellphones to coordinate gang activity and other criminal enterprises. The Southern Center for Human Rights has also alleged that Hays administrators would alert inmates of upcoming searches, or shakedowns, so the prison would shine in departmental security audits.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said locks have been a concern for several years, “especially given the increasingly violent prison population.”
A 2011 report from the state inspector general questioned the department’s locking systems and whether they “represent a cost-effective and efficient use of current technologies.”
“As a result of the findings in this report, we began implementing a comprehensive security plan that includes ongoing improvements and enhancements,” spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said.
Hays remains on partial lockdown, meaning prisoners’ movements are limited. The true test of the new security measures will come when the lockdown is lifted.
According to the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press, 16 correctional officers at Hays — at least some of whom cited safety concerns — either resigned or were transferred in the weeks leading up to a new warden taking over on Monday. Scott Crickmar, the new warden, is replacing Clay Tatum, who was moved from the job earlier this year. The newspaper also reported that officers have been outfitted with stab-proof vests, and some will soon be carrying pepper spray.
Three prisoners died at Hays in just more than a month, between December and January. A fourth was killed moments after being transferred from Hays to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson. A GBI report said they were among at least 10 gang-related homicides throughout the system in the past year.
The Southern Center for Human Rights has complained that prisoners routinely slept in cells to which they were not assigned and they are able to move undetected across the prison campus. For example, Nathaniel Reynolds Jr., serving a life sentence for a 1998 murder he committed when he was 17, was stabbed to death at Hays on Jan. 18 as he returned to a cell block from the “hole.”
“Gang leaders exercise control over housing assignments and were permitted to expel prisoners they no longer wanted in their dorms,” Geraghty said earlier this year.
A state audit in September found that 184 locks failed out of 442 locks inspected at Hays. Other state prisons also struggle with locks, the AJC found in a review of audits at each of the state’s highest-security prisons.
Valdosta State Prison scored a 41 out of 100 on its 2012 audit. Inspectors found problems so pervasive they questioned whether staff was making the required daily lock inspections.
At Telfair State Prison in April 2012, inspectors found that only nine of 207 locks failed. But, the audit shows, 81 of 200 new locks already had to be replaced due to “inmate damage and/or tampering.”
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said he wants to “hear a real clear excuse” about why so many locks fail at state prisons. Ehrhart, who serves on both the committee that writes the state budget and the committee that oversees the Department of Corrections, said there should be a systemwide review of prison security.
“That’s what prisons are for,” he said. “That has to be a major expense.”
Ehrhart said if locks are failing, the state should investigate where the locks came from.
“That floors me,” he said. “I want to know who sold them to us, I want to know if they’re still in business in the state of Georgia.”
State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who chairs the committee that oversees the Department of Corrections, said cuts to the department’s budget have forced it to address challenges as they come up.
“They put things on a priority basis,” he said. “If something comes up, they’ve been good to escalate it at the right time.”
Corrections officials acknowledged the problem with locks at Hays in their request for emergency funding, which allowed the department to bypass the state’s typical process for hiring outside firms. That process is designed to find the best value for taxpayers. Cornerstone Detention Products of Alabama was hired to install new locking systems throughout Hays.
“Inmates at Hays State Prison have been able to defeat … the locks currently installed in the cell doors. Because they have been able to defeat the locks at this high-security facility, the inmates have been able to open cell doors after they have been locked, allowing them to conduct assaults on other inmates and staff,” the agency said.
DOC noted that Cornerstone installed new locks at the Fulton County Jail, whose faulty locks contributed to federal oversight of the facility. County officials spent $4.8 million to replace 1,400 locks. The work will last about year, but a test of the new locks won high praise after prisoners were unable to defeat them.
The department has implemented a plan to “harden” all of its high-security prisons, which include Hays, Baldwin, Hancock, Macon, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons, most of them also scenes of inmates killing inmates in the past year.
But Michael Lovelady, with whom the department has contracted over several years to repair the previous locks, said Hays has had a problem with locks since 2008. Inmates, Lovelady said, “were having to unlock doors from the inside because officers’ keys didn’t work.”
The new system might not solve the problem permanently, Lovelady said.
Cornerstone’s product is high-tech and includes key pads and lights that indicate if a door is locked. If one breaks or is damaged by inmates, it won’t be as easy to fix or as cheap to replace.
“We’ve gone from trying to get control systems for locks simpler so maintenance men in the area can work on them to the opposite route where you’re putting in more and more sophisticated equipment,” he said.
Every state prison in Georgia is inspected at least once a year. Among the things auditors check is how a prison’s locks and locking systems work. Problems have been discovered at several high-security prisons.
At Hays State Prison in September, inspectors reported a “high number of cell door locks that will not deadlock.” Of 442 locks inspected, 184 were defeated.
The lowest score was a 41 out of 100 given to Valdosta State Prison, where Nine Trey Bloods gang leader Darryl Christmas was stabbed to death during an attack by several inmates on Nov. 27. Auditors questioned whether security staff was conducting the required daily lock inspections.
The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, home of death row, scored an 81 in October. Auditors found a “high number of cell doors that will not deadlock.” More than 18 percent of checked locks were defeated by auditors.
At Hancock State Prison, where a November 2011 riot left 12 prisoners hospitalized, the state purchased more than 300 switches for locking control panels. But as of June 2012, 200 had yet to be installed. Of the 240 locks inspected, 68 failed. Last month, however, Hancock won a score of 96 after auditors found just 15 of 432 locks failed.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Only two of 255 locks at Telfair State Prison failed tests in April while four of 590 were defeated at Phillips State Prison in May.