Georgia’s prison system could undergo a radical change with Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposal to spend $600 million to open two new prisons that would replace four outdated correctional facilities with the aim to make prisons safer and cut costs.
The governor recommended in his spending plans that the state purchase a newer prison and build a 3,000-bed facility, a decision he called a historic investment when he announced the plans last week.
Criminal justice reform advocates say that resources would be better spent on education, mental health and other areas that could keep more people out of the criminal justice system and better prepare formerly incarcerated people for the workforce.
Kemp said his proposed spending on corrections is overdue.
“As our judicial system has focused on providing rehabilitative support in the community where appropriate for low-level, nonviolent offenders to avoid recidivism, our state prison population has become filled with increasingly violent offenders,” he wrote in the budget report. “Our aging prison facility infrastructure was not intended to house the level of offender who resides there today, and it requires higher levels staffing and facility maintenance to manage these dangerous environments.”
Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward is scheduled to speak Wednesday before the state legislative joint Appropriations Committee where lawmakers can ask about plans for the prisons.
Georgia’s prison officials struggled to contain a number of problems in recent years, including accusations of mistreatment of inmates, riots, deadly assaults on inmates, attacks on correctional officers, and concerns about the poor physical condition of the facilities.
In September 2021, a federal civil rights investigation began looking into prisoner deaths, rampant violence and abuse of gay, lesbian, and transgender people held in Georgia prisons.
As of December, Georgia had 34 state prisons housing 47,020 inmates, according to the corrections department website.
Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat and lawyer who has focused on Georgia prisons, said he understands why Kemp and the Department of Corrections are focusing on deteriorating facilities, but that is only a surface-level response to systemic problems that would result in many of the same issues in newer institutions.
“Simply purchasing a new prison or building a new prison is not going to change the basic conditions that these people find themselves in,” McLaurin said. “And the reason is because as a society we have lacked the political will to pay real attention to the torturous conditions that these people are facing.”
Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath said the department will announce which facilities will close in the coming weeks once local staffers are notified.
The closure of state prisons would result in the loss of jobs in rural communities, where jobs are hard to find and prisons are often among the largest employers.
And with aging infrastructure and the need for better security measures given for reasons for opening up-to-date facilities, Georgia State Prison, built in Reidsville in 1938 and the oldest in the state, would seem to be a prime candidate to close.
Georgia State Prison holds about 1,000 male inmates in a community of fewer than 5,000 people. It’s located in southeast Georgia’s Tattnall County, which is also home to two other state prisons, Rogers State Prison and Smith State Prison in Glennville.
Corrections officials proposed closing Autry State Prison and five other state facilities in 2020 in order to save $22 million while offering employees the opportunity to work at other facilities.
Carolyn Maddux of the Georgia Interfaith Public Policy Center said modernizing prisons is a positive step for inmates.
“But I do wish that given that Georgia’s incarceration rate is No. 4 in the entire United States, even though our crime rate is only 20, that he would address the fact that we’re putting too many people in them in the first place,” said Maddux, archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.
More money should be dedicated to underlying causes such as mental health that could help people stay out of prison, she said.
“When you build prisons, you build them to fill them,” Maddux said.
Georgia prison officials made a concerted effort to reduce the inmate population for health precautions following the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, resulting in 46,132 people held at the end of 2020, a dip from more than 53,000 the previous two years. The state Pardons and Parole board accelerated early releases for hundreds of inmates incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
Over the last decade, Georgia also made strides in criminal justice reform that reduced the prison population and led to the legislature passing a bill last year allowing some former inmates to end probation early.