The Georgia Prison Guard Shortage Is Killing Incarcerated People

Fewer guards make it harder to monitor interpersonal problems between people in prison — and more dangerous for those who do step in.

A clothing patch showing the insignia of the Georgia Department of Corrections is worn by an officer. Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections

Dontavius Mintz’s mother says her son had been dead in his cell for days when the smell finally attracted attention. Guards at Ware State Prison in Georgia are supposed to check on people in the hole regularly. Of course, they’re supposed to be doing a lot of things they’re not doing right now.

That’s the message Mintz had been trying to tell people outside prison. Mintz, a 24-year-old serving a life sentence, had been working with a prison reform activist group, the Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia. In letters and phone calls, Mintz had described the deteriorating condition of the South Georgia penitentiary, the shortage of guards, the increasingly inedible food, the extreme restriction on movement, and more, said Brian Randolph, a spokesperson for the coalition.

And then Mintz turned up dead last week.

His mother, Nerissa Wright, said people incarcerated at the prison first told her that Mintz was found face down, blood coming from his mouth and nose. A few hours later, she said, prison staff called with the same message but added that the cause of his death was undetermined and that it would take weeks for a toxicology screen to come back and a cause ruling made. No explanation was made to Wright of the staffing shortfall that would have left her son unmonitored for days at a time, she said.

“[The warden] said he didn’t have much information for me and that I can call the coroner,” said Wright. (A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Corrections told The Intercept in a statement, “While details of the death are still under investigation, documents show that rounds were being made.”)

What is clear is that the prison system in Georgia is broken, even by our country’s benighted standards. According to figures from Randolph, as of August 22, 19 people have been killed in a Georgia state prison this year. The cause of another 24 deaths remains undetermined, but undetermined deaths are almost always classified later as homicides, said Randolph. “There’s going have to be some type of federal intervention. No one is willing to fix it. And I’m starting to wonder if, you know, they threw their hands up in the air and just said, ‘Maybe somebody can take it over and fix it,’” he said.

In 2017, the Georgia Department of Corrections reported four homicides. Last year, it reported 26.

Fewer guards make it harder to monitor interpersonal problems between people in prison — and more dangerous to step in. Those conditions lead to stabbings like one captured on video by people imprisoned at Ware State Prison earlier this year, in which a hooting and chanting group ganged up on an incarcerated person for a merciless beating.

Without staff to watch incarcerated people, the imprisoned are oftentimes warehoused in their cells for weeks at a time. This approach is turning Georgia’s prisons into a murder factory.

Guarding the imprisoned wasn’t a particularly attractive job before the pandemic. Broad labor shortages have turned the $16.50 per hour starting wages for a Georgia correctional officer into a 44 percent turnover rate with hundreds of unfilled jobs. As some guards leave, others look at the conditions — and the risks — and leave as well, creating a cascade of attrition. Prisons across the state are operating with as little as one-quarter of the necessary staffing now. In some cases, a single guard might be left to watch dozens of people.

On August 11, the one-year anniversary of Ware State Prison’s last riot, a dispute over food led to two correctional officers being stabbed by a person incarcerated at the prison. One of the guards, Julian Rector, remains in a coma.

That same day, Jamari Charell McClinton, an incarcerated person from Decatur, had been knifed to death by another person imprisoned at Baldwin State Prison.

After the Baldwin State murder, police and correctional department staff interrogated people held at the prison. One of them apparently described the assault and named the perpetrators. Afterward, rather than segregate that person, he was returned to a shared cell.

That witness, Badarius Clark, was murdered last week. Police arrested his cellmate for the crime.

“You don’t put him in any type of protective custody or anything by itself. You put him in a room with a roommate,” said Randolph of the Human and Civil Rights Coalition. “You know, like, at this point … it’s starting to look like the negligence is just intentional.”

The federal prison system is not faring much better in Georgia. Administrators emptied Atlanta’s federal penitentiary a few weeks ago after an internal investigation revealed massive corruption within the ranks.

But the Georgia Department of Corrections is even more astoundingly unresponsive. Inquiries, when answered at all, take days for terse replies. The families of those who have lost loved ones say they receive less response than that.

“They’ve been very evasive with me,” said Jennifer Bradley, whose son Carrington Frye was murdered by a cellmate last year. “[Georgia Department of Corrections] Commissioner [Timothy] Ward was insensitive. He abruptly ended the call, did everything but hang up in my face. His only concern was how did I get his number.”

Bradley described how her son “lay there for 30 to 40 minutes waiting for them to get him assistance, and they didn’t. They had one guard monitoring all those inmates.” The cameras had been smeared with petroleum jelly, leaving the guard room blind, she said. “He was doomed.”

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