Months before inmates started to kill each other at Hays State Prison, correctional officers were in short supply.
For nine consecutive months starting in April, Hays State administrators used the phrase "staff shortage" to explain the need for more than $300,000 in overtime costs at the maximum-security facility.
During that time, the number of correctional officers averaged some 14 percent below full staffing levels, according to monthly reports prepared for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
At times that left just one guard to oversee 124 inmates, according to employee sign-in sheets obtained by the Times Free Press, with only one other officer in the tower to watch that officer's back.
With staffing so low, officers said, they couldn't get control of the inmates. Even worse, they said, administrators undermined their authority by warning inmates of upcoming shakedowns and keeping the lockdown, or disciplinary, unit overcrowded. Those officers asked to remain anonymous because they feared for their jobs.
Multiple officers said that except for the most egregious cases, they were left with virtually no ability to discipline inmates. Often, all guards could do was hand them a disciplinary report equivalent to a $5 fine, officers said.
Along with locks that easily could be defeated and inmates who -- according to a 2012 audit and interviews with guards -- had so much leeway they decided where they wanted to sleep, the ingredients of a deadly cocktail were all in place.
Correctional officers were quitting faster than they could be replaced. In all last year, more than one-third of the prison's correctional officers resigned or were fired, records show. At full staff at Hays should have 293 officers; 105 quit and 13 were fired.
Guards said they couldn't handle the broken locks, the radios that cut out, the lack of staffing and what they called mistreatment from management.
"What made me [quit] was seeing the downhill spiral," said a former officer who resigned in November but still didn't want his name used because he feared retaliation. "When you're seeing things get worse every day, not only see nothing done about it but blatantly people telling you to shut up, that's downhill. It's not going to get any better until it gets worse."
It got worse.
The first killing of an inmate came on Dec. 19, the second a week later.
More bloodshed was to come.
On Jan. 18, inmates took the life of another of their own. A fourth Hays inmate was slain by other Hays inmates on Feb. 5, shortly after he was transferred to another prison.
By the time the Department of Corrections removed warden Clay Tatum on Feb. 6, the shortage of correctional officers had returned to more than 15 percent, near the 2012 peak recorded in August.
Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan last week denied a request for an interview with Rick Jacobs, acting warden at Hays and the department's field operations manager.
But in an interview in early February, Jacobs said that officials have been recruiting as quickly as possible and are constantly looking to hire officers.
In an email last week, Hogan didn't say how many employees Hays officials are seeking but said they would hire "until all the positions are filled."
GDC accepts applications for employment on its website and has participated in job fairs.
Within a day of Jacobs' appointment, a sign similar to one that might be used to advertise a car wash or a church function was placed near the front of the prison.
"Hiring correctional officers. Entry level $26,754," it reads. There's a phone number to call. The pay is $2,000 higher than what's advertised on the Department of Corrections website.
Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters also has been trying to help since the start of the year. He said he sends good applicants seeking county jobs to the prison.
Corrections officials haven't explained why the staff shortage wasn't addressed last year, before four inmates were killed.
Experts in criminal justice say staffing is one of the most important factors in controlling unruly inmates and managing the violence that comes with prisons.
"How do you keep violence down? It comes down to effectively using the resources you have," said Mary Finn, professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.
Officials can't control how inmates act all the time; that's why it's vital to have adequate supervision and staff training, she said.
A local blogger recently mocked the advertised salary, writing on a popular website: "You, too, can get stabbed with a piece of broken window frame for only $26k a year."
Even lawmakers admit that officer starting salaries are low. Yet it could still be among the highest-paid jobs in the community, especially in a tiny town like Trion where unemployment is 10.4 percent.
Lawmakers blame budget constraints for the low pay, but say they and corrections officials have been working to change that. Among steps they have taken are adding 5 percent to the starting salary of officers who work with a higher security level of offenders and a 10 percent bump for military veterans.
"When you start making budget cuts you see staffing issues in every department," said Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette. "[Corrections] works hard to make sure they have adequate staff."
Law enforcement advocates argue the low pay doesn't begin to take into account the risks and anxiety that come with being a corrections officer.
Regular officers don't carry weapons or even flashlights. They may have to break up an inmate fight with only set of keys, a radio and an ink pen.
"They have a job that most police officers on the street wouldn't have," said Joe Stiles, director of the Georgia Police Benevolent Association.
Short-staffing multiplies the dangers they face and it makes it difficult for them to do their jobs, Stiles said. Officers have to have manpower to do dangerous jobs like going through an inmate's cell and taking away his weapons. There's no excuse for shorting their pay, he said, and it should be increased.
"It's time for the Legislature to wake up and smell the roses," he said.
Meanwhile, for the current staff at Hays, all leave time has been canceled and officers normally working 170 hours for a 16-day pay period have 260 hours on their time sheets. That's more than 16 hours a day, and some officers haven't had a day off since mid-January.
"People are exhausted, and you don't make the best decisions when you're tired like that," said one current officer who asked not to be named because he feared losing his job. "It's unbearable for a lot of folks."
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 ...