TRION, Ga. — A neighborhood of shotgun houses sits beside Hays State Prison.
Go door to door and residents will tell you that the little city of Trion has loved and hated that prison since the day the foundation was laid.
They need the prison for jobs, but they are terrified that it is so close.
"Why would you not be scared?" said Donna Gray, who had an escaped inmate run across a field near her house five years ago. "This prison gets the murderers. They are in there for life and they don't care."
Chattooga County Sheriff Mark Schrader said he's received a dozen calls in the last month from people who are worried about the prison. People stop local officers in the supermarket and ask if they know whether everything is under control.
"People want to know," he said. "They want to make sure they are safe."
Concerns about Hays State have bubbled up since three inmates were killed in a month's time. Last week, two guards were attacked and stabbed.
Families of inmates have said they've been forced to wire money to prisoners who have threatened their loved one. A dozen former and current employees say locks are broken and inmates have been out of control. Georgia Department of Corrections officials say they are working to fix the problems.
John Bisbee, who works at the local nursing home, said that since the killings many have driven their cars down the long driveway to the prison and parked, just to get a glimpse inside the wire fencing.
"My wife was up here with me, and I wanted to take her down [there]," he said. "It's definitely the talk of the town right now."
The older residents remember when word began to spread that a prison might be built in their backyard in the 1980s.
Meetings were held to try to stop it, said Sara Jane Henderson, 79, who has lived next door to Hays State for 24 years. There were meetings held for weeks, she said. The rooms were so full you couldn't find a seat, others said. Jackson didn't want the prison in view. She didn't want to worry about escapees.
"We fought it tooth and nail," she said. "But we were overruled."
But now Hays State seems to touch almost everyone in this town, which, beside being known for corrections, is also known for its trade day and Mount Vernon Mills denim factory.
"My cousin works at Hays," said a man packing boxes at Walmart.
"My brother is trying to get a job there," said another woman.
"My husband worked there for years," said a woman who lives in view of the prison warden's humble brick home on a hill.
The prison employs 410 people in an economically depressed county.
Everyone is talking about what goes on inside. They hear rumors from family and friends who have worked there. The stories go that some guards get rich from selling cigarettes and cellphones. They say guards live in fear, too.
Even when people forget a prison is in their backyard, they are reminded by the weekly sirens that test the inmate escape warning system.
Last week, guards coming out of the prison were mum. At a Wendy's restaurant where many guards go to eat their lunch, three whispered to each other about reporters coming around asking too many questions. Family members of guards said they wouldn't talk about what they knew.
But videos and photos also make their way outside the razor wire. One shows a thin man with in shiny, silver shanks lined neatly on his chest to show them off.
Those who have worked inside the prison say it's even more dangerous than the neighbors fear.
"People out here have no idea what officers go through. The danger in there, I worry about those guys," said Randy Young, who worked at Hays for 20 years.
He had to leave the prison three years ago after he tackled an inmate to the ground during a prison fight, twisting his body. His back never recovered. Now as a youth pastor at Pennville Church of Christ, less than a mile down the road, Young is reminded about the danger as he pulls down the letters from a church sign.
"Hell has no exits," it reads.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...
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 ...