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When a fourth Hays State Prison inmate was killed in February, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal knew something had to be done.
Warden Clay Tatum was removed and a new leader was put in place.
Rick Jacobs, then the state's field operations manager for Northwest Georgia, assumed command before inmate Pippa Hall-Jackson could even be buried.
Five months and $2 million later, tougher security measures are in place at the Trion, Ga., prison for the most violent offenders, a new locking system has been installed and guards have stab-proof vests and soon will be armed with pepper spray.
And Jacobs cited these changes as reasons that Hays should become the model for the Georgia prison system.
But guards fear this new sense of order isn't going to last.
As a result, they are resigning at a rate not seen since inmates attacked two prison guards 18 months ago.
The latest exodus began in June, around the time the Department of Corrections announced that Jacobs would be promoted and Walker State Prison Warden Scott Crickmar would replace him, effective Monday.
In the past three weeks, 16 officers gave their notices, quit or were transferred to another facility. That's twice the number who left Hays per month on average over the past year.
Some guards said they fear the worst when the partial lockdown that has been in place prisonwide since Jacobs took over is finally lifted.
One veteran guard, Lester Duvall, said inmates are threatening mayhem when their time on restricted movement is finally lifted, and he doesn't have faith that the new security measures are enough to protect him.
"I don't feel like [administrators] are concerned about my safety," said Duvall, a 14-year officer at Hays who put in his two weeks' notice in early June and worked his final day last week. "They weren't concerned about anybody's safety until it got out [about the faulty locks.] Now all these high-profile people are looking at it and they're jumping through hoops."
Before the state decided to spend $2 million to upgrade Hays security systems under Jacobs, state audits had identified the broken locks and easily defeated doors since at least 2010. Those audits were forwarded for review to a number of officials, including Jacobs.
Freshman state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who has been monitoring the situation at Hays, said he agrees with the officers' concerns. He said he hesitates bragging about the prison renovations because the new security system hasn't yet been tested.
"I do have concerns," Hufstetler said Friday. "Just the fact we'll have to be cautious in these times because it will be a major change" when the prison goes off lockdown, he said.
The last time this many officers left Hays in one month was March 2012 when 17 officers resigned, monthly prison reports show.
That mass exit started a week after Officer Eric Gilreath was attacked and stabbed 21 times and Officer Forrest Simpson had to jump on top of Gilreath, officers said, likely saving his life. Gilreath survived, but a prison incident report shows he was in serious condition with knife gouges on his head, face, back, neck, hand and both arms.
The current resignations from Hays come in the same month the Department of Corrections announced that officers at prisons statewide will receive one-time bonuses.
Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said eligible officers will receive a $100 bonus for every year they've worked in the prison system, with a $1,000 cap.
Hays has been called a model prison before.
In 2011, with Georgia and Tennessee dignitaries watching, tactical units swept through Hays and found few contraband weapons, a testament to order and discipline, prison officials said.
A year later, Hays received the state's prison of the year award. That shakedown was cited as one of the main reasons for the award.
But multiple guards and former officials at Hays have said the demonstration was a sham because inmates had been warned beforehand.
Under Tatum's leadership for more than two years, officers also said gang leaders largely controlled the prison and were given so much freedom that they could decide where they wanted to sleep.
Then in December 2012, an eight-week reign of inmate violence began that shook the prison system all the way to the governor's office.
The first inmate was killed on Dec. 19. The second killing came a week later. By Feb. 5, four Hays prisoners had been slain, all by other inmates.
Since Jacobs took over Feb. 6, the prison has remained on partial lockdown. Tactical squads scour the prison in full body gear shaking down prisoners' dorms.
Guards now have stab-proof vests and have gone through pepper spray training to become certified.
While officers say they haven't received the spray yet, Jacobs told a local newspaper that the pepper spray will be issued before the prison is taken off lockdown.
Jacobs also said he has implemented a new system in the general population that segregates the more-violent offenders.
Corrections officials said Jacobs was too busy last week to talk to the Times Free Press.
Monday he will turn over the prison to Crickmar, who will take charge of his first maximum-security prison.
Thirteen years ago, Crickmar began his career in corrections as a counselor. He has two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree in criminal justice and was promoted to his first warden position a year ago at Walker State Prison. Walker is a medium-security facility in Rock Spring that is designated a faith and character-based prison. That means it offers selected inmates special opportunities to grow their faith and character.
The inmate population at Walker is more than half the size of Hays, and the worst offenders aren't housed there.
Duvall said there have been questions among guards about whether Crickmar's experience has prepared him to take over at Hays and whether new officers who have never worked in other than lockdown conditions will be able to handle the prisoners.
Last week, officers still were being escorted through the prison by tactical squads and cell doors weren't being opened unless the tactical officers in body armor were in the building, Duvall said.
Even though Duvall no longer works at Hays, he worries about what could happen there.
"My biggest fear is when this inexperienced warden lets inmates out with inexperienced officers," he said.
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 ...