* Georgia prison violence widespread
Group sues for prison records
An Atlanta-based advocacy group has sued the Georgia Department of Corrections, alleging the agency violated the state's Open Records Act by attempting to charge a quarter of a million dollars for public records.
The Southern Center for Human Rights requested records in February and March about deaths and security lapses at Hays State Prison. Corrections officials responded with a fee of up to $80,000 each for three requests.
Corrections officials also said it would take more than 31,000 business hours to fulfill the requests -- the equivalent of 15 years of work for a person working eight hours per day, 50 weeks per year.
The Department of Corrections' claim "is patently unreasonable and in violation of Georgia's open government laws," the center's Sarah Geraghty said in a prepared statement.
RaHonda MacClain, mother of Damion MacClain, an inmate who was killed at Hays in December, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Thursday in Fulton County Superior Court.
The Southern Center requested the public records after violence at the maximum-security prison in Trion, Ga., escalated, with three prisoners killed in six weeks, and after the Times Free Press highlighted security failures such as problems with broken locks.
Georgia is footing a $1.7 million bill to fix broken locks at Hays State Prison that left prisoners free to roam their cell units and assault fellow cellmates or guards.
To justify the emergency purchase, Department of Corrections officials had to admit that new locks were needed to stop a plague of assaults and violence at the maximum-security prison.
The purchase order from Feb. 13 reads, in part: "Hays State Prison has had recurring problems with the cell door locks in its housing units. This situation has severe security implications in that breaches of the locks have resulted in attacks on inmates and staff."
As early as 2010, state audits documented persistently broken doors and latches at Hays. State auditors found for three years straight that locks in the inmate housing area "could be easily defeated."
After three prisoners were killed in a six-week rash of violence in December and January, new warden Rick Jacobs said the locks were being fixed.
Experts in corrections say the department has opened itself up to lawsuits over the killing of at least one inmate. Damion MacClain was beaten and strangled in his bed at night when the cell doors should have been locked.
"[The family] should sue the prison," said Daniel Vasquez, a former California Department of Corrections administrator who is now a prison consultant.
"I've worked in corrections all my adult life. I've had officers killed by inmates, inmates killed by other inmates [but] I have never experienced that," Vasquez said.
One state lawmaker is calling for an investigation into what went wrong at Hays and how prisoners' and guards' lives were put in jeopardy.
"The Department of Corrections is supposed to correct prisoners so they can be productive again," said Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold. "Clearly we must take action to address the breaches of discipline."
State corrections officials made the $1 million purchase order for new locks six days after former warden Clay Tatum was replaced in February.
"Installing this lock throughout Hays will eliminate the current assaults on inmates and staff that is plaguing Hays State Prison," officials wrote. "It is in the best interest of the state to proceed with installation ... before someone is seriously injured or there is a loss of life."
The company chosen to make and install the locks, Cornerstone Detention Products, was picked because of its recent work at the Fulton County Jail. The jail, which has been under federal oversight for the last six years, was recently approved for a $5 million upgrade to replace more than 1,000 broken locks.
Georgia corrections officers claim Fulton County prisoners haven't been able to defeat those locks, and that's why they should be used at Hays.
Officials also bought touchscreen locking control systems costing nearly $700,000. Records show this was an update purchase that was originally requested last year, when the locks were still broken.
Corrections officials didn't respond to questions about the locking control system originally requested in August 2012.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
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 ...