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COLUMN: GA Corrections Commissioner Plans to Stop the Bleeding By Applying Band-aids on Amputation Wounds

bandaids over blood on ga corrections logo for commissioner ward

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of The Georgia Virtue. 


The man responsible for overseeing all 92 facilities across the State of Georgia recently demonstrated how out of touch he is with both the prison he plans to close and the problems destroying the Georgia Department of Corrections from the inside out.

On January 19, Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward presented to the Joint House & Senate Appropriations Committee about the agency’s needs for Fiscal Year 2023.

Presentation

Ward wasn’t but sixteen seconds into his presentation when he subtly announced to anyone who has been paying attention that his speech would be both laughable and full of half truths. Ward read out the GDC mission of ‘protecting the public’ by operating ‘safe and secure’ facilities,’ a mission he called ‘non-negotiable’ and one that is ‘tested continuously.’

That’s the point at which I heard the sound they play when someone loses on The Price is Right. 

If that’s GDC’s mission, ‘GDC’ replaced the term ‘failure’ in the dictionary based on 2021 alone. Last year, we learned that:

Of course, those are just some of the more high profile cases that managed to squeak out to the media, but it would be a fair assessment to state that GDC did not meet its own standards if people on the outside are being killed by people on the inside.

Back to the presentation.

The Prison Population in Georgia

Currently, GDC houses 45,551 inmates. 87% of population has security designation of closed (maximum) or medium. 14,103 of the inmates are known gang members however, Ward told lawmakers, “We know the number is higher, but we have to use the validation instrument” formula to identify gang members and that’s what the instrument says.

According to GA Corrections Commissioner Ward, criminal justice reform in the early 2010s diverted low-level offenders away from prison, leaving GDC with more violent offenders who serve longer sentences. 

  • 7,407 offenders are serving life sentences (16.26% of total inmate population)
  • 1,675 offenders are serving life without parole (3.7% of the total inmate population)

He also said that the infrastructure was not designed to house more violent offenders for long periods of time.

Aging Infrastructure, New Prisons

How new does the infrastructure have to be to accommodate violent offenders? Smith State Prison in Glennville, where the murder for hire plot mentioned above was organized, was constructed in 1993. Tattnall County EMS made 119 trips to the facility in 2020 and 2021, with 91% of those resulting in life flights out to an area hospital – mostly due to violence. Apparently, the infrastructure is to blame for these occurrences. Per Ward, the infrastructure could not accommodate these violent individuals for such a ‘long period’ of time. So how long is the infrastructure able to safely house these offenders?

It was not mentioned in the 15 minute presentation on his $1.2 billion budget, but it was announced later that the decision has been made to close Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, the state’s oldest prison and the home of ‘Sparky’ the electric chair until 1980. So, to be clear: They once housed death row inmates and recently invested millions for upgrades, but now the facility on 7,428 acres is not sufficient for housing violent offenders and must close.

Ward told lawmakers at one point that “the Governor is giving me $600 million to purchase a facility and build a new one.” He obviously doesn’t understand how all of this works. The Governor’s budget is merely a proposal, subject to approval by both chambers of the legislature. That’s why he was there to present before them: to make his case and explain why [x,y & z] are necessary. But I digress.

Gangs & Contraband 

State Senator John Albers asked how GDC was budgeting for putting ‘cell phone jammers in every prison.’ The short answer is: They’re not. Ward told Albers they had a new technology, which was not explained or defined, at Hancock State Prison, but that only two others – Valdosta State and Wilcox State Prison – are in line to get the technology. 

“The problem with cell phone jammers is that it’s hard to add that technology to aging infrastructure…It’s a constant struggle to keep those individuals [inmates] from getting to the technology because of the aging infrastructure.”

Hays State Prison, where the inmate was sentenced for running a fraud scheme via cell phone from inside the facility, was constructed in 1990. Is that infrastructure too dated, too?

Sen. Albers also asked what is being done to break up the gang activity inside prisons, which Ward said was being addressed by ‘Optamo, LLC.’ The private company helps identify offenders and place them in varying facilities. That was the extent of the explanation. GA Corrections Commissioner Ward said GDC also established a unit at Hancock State Prison for individuals who wish to ‘get out’ of gangs. To date, 98 of the state’s 45,551 inmates have asked to be placed in that unit.

Employees, Salaries, & Turnover 

In the last fiscal year, almost 1,300 correctional officers have been hired. Hiring is not the issue for GDC, Ward said, because they’re hosting an average of 217 career fairs a month, but rather turnover. The agency’s 49% turnover rate, which Ward attributed to a highly competitive job market and the low starting salaries at GDC, is costing the agency dearly. 

Ward didn’t mention how much of the attrition is due to former corrections officers being fired or sentenced criminally for something they did while on the job. Like this supervisor from Valdosta State Prison. He also left out that the lack of control in facilities, the inmate-on-guard violence, and the placement of hits on C.O.s and their families may be a deterrent.  

“Kudos to the Governor for giving us the $5,000 increase,” Ward said.

The Bleeding Won’t Stop 

Georgia State Prison has been costly to taxpayers, especially at the local level, for decades. Closing it, however, will be about as fulfilling as serving pie crust and whipped cream with no filling.

With the rumors that another facility will be built not far from GSP (they do own 7,428 acres, after all), it’s just a lateral move of all the same problems into a shinier building with new names on the plaque at the door.

The 100+ criminal cases pending in Tattnall County Superior Court from inmate-on-inmate violence won’t just evaporate, nor will the dozens upon dozens of cases stemming from contraband issues with guards and the public. The violent offenders will still rule the roost and the policies instituted will still keep GDC employees from taking back control of the facility. EMS and the life flight helicopter will continue to make their rounds and the headstone-free cemetery across the street will still have freshly dug graves. 

GSP has decreased it’s population significantly over the last two years, but still can’t keep the prison staffed to safe levels for officers or offenders and incidents of violence continue to skyrocket. What will a facility with twice the capacity do if it can’t be staffed with people who aren’t running contraband to the inside?

Where to go from here

GA Corrections Commissioner Ward’s presentation left a lot to be desired. It left more questions than it answered, which wouldn’t be the case if the agency had not transitioned away from publishing public data on the state website during his tenure. Quarterly contraband sweeps, inmate deaths, COVID-19 information, details of arrests of correctional officers – the public information campaign was once much more robust. But, then again, under Ward’s leadership, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence was ‘released in error’ from Rogers State Prison and GDC waited three days to notify the public. I get it – transparency isn’t their thing. 

So we’re back to what GA Corrections Commissioner Ward proposes to ‘fix’ so many of these problems: money. It’s easy for us to oppose the plan and to say we can’t afford $600 million or ask how $600 million will make it different.

But the reality is that it’s more appropriate to say ‘We can’t afford any more time with GA Corrections Commissioner Ward at the helm.’

Jessica Szilagyi
Written By

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of The Georgia Virtue. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta, a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast,' and she has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers." Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bill Chafin

    January 24, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    Learn How Non-Violent Offenders Can Stay Out of the System by Helping Special Needs Kids Through Community Service.

    The onslaught of the 2020 pandemic has hit many city, county, and state budgets across the country and has created a hole so deep that many systems struggle to find a way not only to meet all the brand new, unprecedented challenges, but also to continue to manage and provide support to established programs, organizations, and vulnerable populations. For Judges and other key decision-makers in the judicial system, the focus has been on how to budget already stretched funds needed to manage the burgeoning prison population. For parents, caregivers, and professionals caring for sick or special needs children, the focus has been on how to continue to provide these children with the opportunity to attend and experience life-enhancing therapy camps. For these two groups of individuals with distinctly different challenges – nonviolent offenders and children with disabilities, a national 501(c)3 non-profit organization has devised a straightforward solution to help both groups while saving city and county budgets millions of dollars.

    Reachout America Website
    Court Ordered Community Service
    What’s the Solution?

    Simple – Reachout America is a nationally accredited 501(c)3 not-for-profit that enables physically challenged children across America the opportunity to attend, experience, and participate in therapeutic camps, has developed a unique way of keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail, saving judicial systems hundreds of thousands of dollars, and helping therapy camps continue to provide world-class, exceptional services to children with special needs: sentence nonviolent offenders to community service hours and help therapy camps. Please be advised that contact between the kids and the offender is not an option.

    The Cost of Sending Nonviolent Offenders to Jail

    The average daily cost to incarcerate a nonviolent offender is approximately one hundred dollars (providing they do not need special medical attention and/or, in many cases, have a pending lawsuit). The standard settlement or claim is roughly $40,000 per incident. The true cost of imprisoning nonviolent offenders in brick-and-mortar jail cells, however, reaches far beyond the astronomical financial cost of housing, feeding, and medically caring for them on a daily basis. The impact extends out to the community, to the families of the nonviolent offenders, and to the mindset and future outlook of the offenders. Whether they’re sentenced to a few days, weeks, or months, nonviolent offenders in jail typically lose their jobs while serving time behind bars. Further, unnecessary incarceration displaces families and puts undue stress and worry on the children, partners, and other relatives as they try to continue to support their family and maintain their apartments or homes while the main breadwinner sits in jail. Today, the USA workforce desperately needs more essential workers; by locking nonviolent offenders behind bars, they are missing opportunities to contribute to their communities as essential employees in the workforce.

    The Savings Incurred

    Sentencing a nonviolent offender to community service in lieu of jail time would provide huge savings to a community’s judicial system without any additional cost to implement the program. By embracing the use of community service hours to keep ten individuals out of jail per day in a small municipality, for example, that community’s economy would save over $400,000+ in expenses and lawsuits. A larger municipality that could prevent one hundred individuals from going to jail would conserve at least $4 million (not including lawsuits that could potentially add up to a couple more million).

    The Challenge of “Community Service” Sentences

    One challenge concerning community service opportunities is the minimal number of organizations and facilities across America that are already set up, positioned, and available for nonviolent offenders to complete their required hours of community service. Enter Reachout America. As an established national foundation headquartered in Georgia, Reachout America has helped children connect with unique and fun therapy camps across the country for decades – all of which are camps fully ready to provide community service hours to nonviolent offenders sent through the court system. Through Reachout America, individuals needing community service hours are able to choose a local therapy camp to support that would obtain funding from their hours completed; camps across America that have community service platforms in place range from horse riding camps that offer Hippotherapy to space camps for children who dream of flying to the moon. While many nonviolent offenders who have received probation hours from a Judge have elected to complete their service hours through Reachout America, the immediate availability of these therapy camps to provide community service hours far outweighs the number of individuals that are currently aware of the camps. Reachout America is working to expand that awareness.

    Life-Changing Benefits

    The focus of Reachout America is twofold – to raise awareness of children with special needs and to provide those children with the opportunity to experience therapeutic camps. The benefits reaped by those involved with this Foundation are life-changing and far-reaching. For the children, their parents, the caregivers, and the volunteers alike, everyone who has ever been connected to one or more of the therapy camps feels forever profoundly changed and grateful. Whichever option, platform, or fundraising campaign the nonviolent offender chooses to orchestrate on behalf of a therapy camp (and to complete his/her community service hours), the individuals completing their community service hours through these camps have the benefit of knowing their efforts contribute to children with Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Autism, Congenital Heart Disease (or any one of other countless other ailments) being able to attend a therapy camp. Many testimonials from nonviolent offenders share how serving their community hours for the benefit of a therapy camp profoundly inspired them to reflect on their past choices, count their current blessings, and set goals to become the best versions of themselves while continuing to be of service to others. It’s hard to imagine that nonviolent offenders sitting in jail cells for months would have those same testimonials on the day they are released back into the community.

    Connecting with Reachout America

    In this unprecedented, uncertain time for cities, states, the nation, and the world, Reachout America has provided a simple solution to help countless individuals, families, and systems in need. Reachout America is on a mission to let judicial systems across America know that there are therapy camps for children with disabilities ready to accept and help their nonviolent offenders complete their community service hours. For judicial systems that desire to balance their budgets, inspire nonviolent offenders to reposition their focus on the needs of others, and help children with special needs throughout their community,

    Reachout America has provided a way. You Can Make a Difference!

    Reachout America Website
    Court Ordered Community Service
    Reachout America NPO Inc.
    6071 Queens River Drive, Mableton
    GA 30126

    Reachout America is a fully qualified 501(c)3 since 2005 – Helping challenged and disadvantaged youth across America.

    • Avatar

      Tony Thomas

      January 25, 2022 at 12:43 pm

      As a former inmate who served 35 years of incarceration I will say this, yes we do need a new prison commissioner. Mr. Ward has demonstrated his lack of concern for staff as well as inmates who are non-gang members we need a person that will take control of the prisons and put the officers lives in safety first. What we need is for all gang members to be placed in their own prisons i.e. blood with blood, crips with crips etc. Non gang members can be housed in the private prisons. Higher pay and better equipment for the officers to protect themselves, such as body alarms that the Federal Bureau of Prison uses. When an inmate assaults another inmate or an officer, they should be prosecuted in free world courts and placed in disciplinary isolation for up to 5 years. The GDC needs to get tougher on these gang members and the inmates that commit these crimes within the prisons. In my opinion, they should bring back former assistant commissioner James Doctor. I served under him, he had great ideas. I believe he would be the person who could really make the changes that are so desperately needed.

      • Avatar

        Brain Jones

        January 26, 2022 at 8:16 pm

        You served 35 years and your response to this is they need a better commissioner. How bout they stop over sentencing people and start letting inmates go instead of keeping them locked away for 35 years, how bout they have awareness classes that teaches inmates about gangs and rehabilitation into the free world. How bout instead of punshing prisoners ,help them,They already been punished so it’s like double jepordy,they only do what they do to survive in a place where nobody cares about them. These people have to fix the system, you got rapists, child molesters,and even murders who get less time then a person who does a armed robbery, Prison reform should be what these state officials should be talking about, All those life sentence in GA doesn’t even fit the crime, it’s crazy so it’s not all on ward, it’s on the government too. Help them so they can help themselves. The answer is not locking more people up, it’s about getting these guys back out into society.

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