Of all the places where a locked door is essential, a prison seems like one of the most obvious.
Not just to keep the criminals in, but also to keep dangerous felons away from one another -- and from guards.
Yet locks don't appear to have been a priority for the maximum-security penitentiary in Trion, Ga., where prison officials have known about persistently broken doors and latches for at least two years.
A 2010 audit of Hays State Prison found that not only were some locks broken, so were the red lights that signaled to guards when a cell was unlocked.
The report also notes that convicts routinely caused security doors to fail simply by shoving trash, debris or foreign objects into the lock latch pockets or bolts.
"The locks in the inmate housing area could be easily defeated," the audit states.
The same problems are cited in the 2011 annual report.
Those reports, along with extensive interviews with guards, former guards and inmates, suggest that administrators knew about the security problems but didn't do enough to fix them until three inmates were killed in six weeks.
"It was after lockdown" that inmate Damion MacClain was strangled and beaten in his bed in December, said a former Hays officer who was privy to that information. "The murder was the result that the doors don't lock."
Now, with former warden Clay Tatum out and an acting warden in place, corrections officials say they are working overtime to upgrade their locking system and have taken other steps to improve security and reduce violence. (See related story on Page A1: 250 inmates out, stab-proof vests in.)
"There's a comprehensive plan in place," Georgia Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens told the Board of Corrections at its monthly meeting Thursday in Atlanta. "We're getting back to the basics."
But a phone call placed to a state lawmaker two months before the killing spree began at Hays warned of the urgent situation with the prison's locks.
The Department of Corrections won't talk about its locking system, citing security reasons.
But Michael Lovelady, an electrical engineer and contractor who has consulted for Hays and worked on the locking system, said most of the prison is equipped with electronic locks.
Lovelady wrote a study that identified problems with the control panels for the locks and wiring as early as 2004.
Six years later, he reported to the Department of Corrections engineer that significant changes would have to take place before the department could upgrade locking systems throughout the prison system to be more secure. The prisons were using locks that can easily be manipulated and aren't the most secure locks made, Lovelady said.
In a letter dated Dec. 12, 2010, he told the engineer, who is no longer in the position, that it would cost about $1,750 per 50-cell housing unit to upgrade the locks.
As recently as October 2012, he was called to work on some of the same problems with the locks and locking system at Hays.
Officers at Hays, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their jobs, said the locking system deteriorated quickly over the past two to three years.
Maintenance records during that time show that workers tried to fix hundreds of locks at Hays. Emails were sent to unit managers and the deputy warden showing that extensive work was needed on broken cell doors and fire exits that wouldn't open.
And all those reports -- from maintenance requests to annual audits -- were sent up the prison and corrections ladder for review.
The larger maintenance requests were copied to Hays administrators. Copies of the audits were sent to corrections administrators including the assistant commissioner, the director of facilities operations and the Office of Investigations and Compliance.
Audit copies also were forwarded to Rick Jacobs, the Corrections Department's field operations manager. On Wednesday, after a fourth Hays inmate was killed while being transferred, Owens named Jacobs acting warden at Hays.
The Corrections Department declined to say whether any action was taken to address issues identified in the Hays audits.
Spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan did say that the department has "taken into account aspects of all previous audits."
Meanwhile, Hays administrators were assuring lawmakers and guards that the locks were being dealt with, that the situation was under control.
Guards say they feared for their lives after two officers were stabbed by multiple inmates last February. One guard was stabbed 22 times. The other was wounded after he threw himself over his fellow officer to protect him.
That's when then-state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, a member of the legislative committee that oversees prisons, first learned that many locks at Hays were broken. The Menlo Democrat began asking questions.
After the attacks, guards said Hays officials told them the faulty locks would be fixed by April 2012. Still, 17 officers resigned in March, the prison's highest turnover month for 2012, monthly reports from Hays to the GDC show.
When nothing happened in April, seven more guards quit. Andrew Mitchell, a former officer, said his wife begged him to leave after the locks went unrepaired. He did.
In May, an officer was attacked in the chow hall, beaten with a cane and cut in the face, multiple sources said. Eleven more officers quit.
Massey Reece said Hays officials told her, too, that the locks would be fixed by April. She said she talked with people on the State Properties Committee, which oversees the Department of Corrections, and sent a letter to Owens.
That's when she met with corrections officials and was told the problem is more complicated. There were problems with the overall locking system that would take time and money. Still, she was assured the locks were going to be addressed.
"I presumed they were moving forward with the contract and the installation," she said.
The Department of Corrections is overseen by an 18-member board of men and women with backgrounds across the spectrum, from law enforcement to business and city and county officials.
Gov. Nathan Deal appoints the board and the commissioner. Each month, Owens reports to the board a variety of issues, from jailed inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons, budget issues and policy.
While the board can inquire about pressing problems, members say they are a policy-setting body and don't manage day-to-day operations.
The State Properties Committee of the General Assembly oversees the Department of Corrections. But committee members also say they don't directly regulate the department.
"We are much more of a policy-driven body in the Legislature," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette. "[There's] not a lot of executive oversight."
At Thursday's Board of Corrections meeting in Atlanta, Owens updated members on what was being done at Hays. The board members acknowledged that the prison has to be fixed quickly.
"We have some severe challenges at that prison," said Chairman John Mayes, who also is a Floyd County commissioner. "But we're going to deal with it."
He and others said they didn't know about the ongoing lock problems described in the Hays audits.
Last year, the corrections board approved a $3.5 million bond request to pay for projects including a new locking system.
The request didn't say where the locking system was to be installed, and board members said they weren't told either. But Owens said Thursday the money was to upgrade locks in all the maximum-security prisons.
A representative with Owens' office said the upgrades begun in recent days at Hays are coming from that approved amount last year.
Asked after the meeting how the lock problems got to this point, Owens said that is being investigated.
While public officials thought the locking system at Hays was being fixed, a chilling experience at Hays in late October 2012 told Lovelady otherwise.
Lovelady was inside the prison on a repair call when he was asked to examine how most of the locks in A building, which holds 62 inmates, were broken or could easily be manipulated.
At one cell door a guard fumbled with his key in the lock; the door wouldn't budge. Then they heard a click from the other side. An inmate had stuck his finger through a broken keyhole and popped the lock open.
Lovelady, who has done contract work on the locks and control systems in Georgia prisons for more than 20 years, said he was so horrified that he called Neal from the prison parking lot.
"Something's going to happen if you don't do something about this," he remembers saying.
Neal said that after the call, he toured Hays in early November and was shown where maintenance workers were screwing in new locks.
"I felt like they were taking appropriate action," he said.
Massey Reece toured the prison with Neal as well. But she lost re-election in November. Since the recent killings and stabbings at Hays, she said she is upset that the Department of Corrections didn't act faster.
"I have been concerned that it wasn't done right away, last year," she said.
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 ...