published Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Georgia officials' eyes turn to Hays prison

A view out the front door of Hays State Prison, in Trion Ga., reveals one of the many watch towers on the property.
A view out the front door of Hays State Prison, in Trion Ga., reveals one of the many watch towers on the property.
Photo by Staff File Photo.
  • photo
    Hays State Prison as seen from behind the Guard Line in Trion, Georgia on January 29, 2013.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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2011 Facility of the Year
2011 Facility of the Year

By day, scrutiny at Hays State Prison appears to be on the rise.

State lawmakers met with corrections department officials in Atlanta this week and demanded action after the violent deaths of three inmates and the stabbing of two guards in the past month at the maximum security prison in Trion, Ga.

And local officials -- spurred by fears among residents asking, "Are we safe?" -- drove to the prison and talked with the warden.

They say they all have been told that the Georgia Department of Corrections has beefed up security, has inmates on lockdown and is working double time to fix broken locks. They say the situation is getting better.

"They assured us everything that needed to be done is being done," said Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Rome, who is in his first month in office.

But sources inside the prison say things aren't under control after nightfall.

Inmates are angry and restless because guards recently searched them for cellphones, marijuana and cigarettes. Visitation has been suspended, too. A fight broke out Tuesday, several guards and inmates said. And at one point, guards had to use smoke grenades called "flash bangs" to control a crowd of inmates.

"They are saying it's getting better," said one guard who asked not to be named for fear of being fired. "[But the trouble] happened after lockdown."

Corrections officials didn't return calls seeking comment.

Some lawmakers are pushing for answers and some are rushing to comfort constituents about the problems at Hays. Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, wrote in a news release that the "issue is being actively addressed."

The newly elected senator said he doesn't know all the details since he's so new in office, but he is going to keep a close eye on what changes correction officials have touted.

At Hays, Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Jason Winters said, he saw more officers on staff than he's ever seen before.

"I feel like they are putting a lot of attention at Hays to correct this," he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers say the next move is to make sure the Department of Corrections follows through. Lumsden said lawmakers are giving officials time to fix the locks before further action. And lawmakers said they will give them time to hire more employees, while locals are going to refer good applicants to prison officials to speed up the process.

But no one could explain why, while Hays' staffing officially is down by 45 guards, there are only 10 corrections officer job openings online.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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