Thursday, April 27, 2023

prison shadow
Credit: Ye Jinghan/Unsplash

Gang bill now law

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a raft of bills into law Wednesday with the goal of increasing public safety. The law with the largest influence is the mandatory minimum prison sentences for gang members.

“We’re saying loud and clear, ‘Come after our kids, and we will be coming after you,’ ” Kemp reportedly said at a Georgia Sheriffs’ Association conference. “We will not let up in Georgia until gangs are literally gone because their members are behind bars.”

The law establishes five years minimum prison time for gang-related behavior and 10 years for recruiting someone into a gang. 

At a panel in Savannah organized by the League of Women Voters on Tuesday, Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones said Georgia’s gang law leaves unaddressed the underlying reasons for why young people fall into gangs – societal ills like poverty, trauma and mental illness.

“Before we incarcerate young people we have to understand that the only thing many young people learn if they don’t have the right services and rehabilitation services during imprisonment, the only thing that they learn when they are put in adult prisons is how to be a better criminal,” Jones said.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, whose director endorsed the bill, said it investigated 446 gang-related cases across Georgia in 2021 and charged 170 gang members. Gang crimes can be violent and were responsible for multiple killings in Savannah in 2017 and 2018. However, the total scope of the alleged gang problem on the coast is not known: The GBI’s data on gangs is admittedly spotty, including how one identifies a gang or gang member.

Jones and other panelists, excluding Superior Court Judge Tammy Stokes, harped on the vagueness of the Georgia statute. Georgia law defines a gang as a grouping of at least three people featuring “a common name or common identifying signs, symbols, tattoos, graffiti, or attire or other distinguishing characteristics, including, but not limited to, common activities, customs, or behaviors.”

Photo of Maurice Terrell Jenkins who died at Coastal State Prison in Garden City on April 19, 2023.

Savannah-area prison death

A prisoner at Coastal State Prison in Garden City died last week, likely by suicide, according to authorities.

Maurice Terrell Jenkins, 48, of Cochran, Ga., died on April 19 from a “suspected suicide” and his death is under investigation, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

A GDC spokesperson confirmed Jenkins was placed in solitary confinement at the time of his death.

“While the investigation remains active, preliminary findings and review of cameras reveal that he was in his cell alone prior to his death, which occurred at approximately 6:15 a.m.,” spokesperson Joan Heath said.

Jenkins’ sister told The Current that her brother Maurice had been in solitary confinement since February. People in solitary confinement make up only 6 to 8% of a prison’s population, but half of all prison suicide deaths, according to a 2008 study.

Charita Jenkins, an Army veteran living in Savannah, said she doesn’t believe her brother died by suicide he had recently finished his parole plan with his counselor to be released after serving nine years in prison.

“I really hate that he’s been looking forward all these years of him coming home,” Charita Jenkins, an Army veteran living in Savannah. “I feel like I just can’t breathe right. I haven’t been able to eat, I haven’t been able to sleep. That was my first best friend.”

The GDC has struggled with rampant violence, understaffing and alleged mistreatment of LGBTQ people in its prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice has two open investigations into Georgia’s prison systems.

Coastal State Prison has not been removed from those issues. Its former warden, Brooks Benton, who departed the agency in December 2021, said staffing vacancies were as high as 80 correctional officers from 2019 to 2021, according to a May 2022 court deposition in a separate court case. He said when he left, the prison had around 280 officers on staff.

Charita Jenkins called her brother a gentle giant and questioned how the 6-foot, 4-inch tall man hanged himself in his small cell. She also said the Georgia Department of Corrections has not turned over records related to his death and did not investigate the circumstances of his death until after she raised concerns.

Panel of stakeholders in Chatham County’s criminal justice system speaking on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Credit: Jake Shore/The Current

One more thing: What can you do?

Tuesday’s panel in Savannah on criminal justice system reform provided information about Chatham County’s legal system: the overburdened caseloads of prosecutors and public defenders, the 23-hour daily lockups at the Chatham County jail, victims of crimes who feel overlooked and the lack of transition services for residents who return home after prison. Chatham County has the highest recidivism rate in the state. 

The legal system and its many tentacles can often leave regular citizens feeling hopeless – the issues too big and overwhelming to change. 

Here are recommendations that each panelist – Chatham County DA Shalena Cook Jones, Superior Court Judge Tammy Stokes, defense attorney Michael Schwartz and rights restoration advocate Page Dukes – offered the audience for what regular citizens can and should do:

DA Shalena Cook Jones: 

  • “If you own a business, agree to take on a (formerly incarcerated) worker, and we’ll monitor them and help you to help to build path to success.

Judge Tammy Stokes: 

  • “I think education is at least a piece of the picture. I think we all are better off, we learn more and we keep a curiosity about how our systems work.”

Attorney Michael Schwartz

  • “Tour the jail. Ask about the jail. Learn about the jail. Read the articles about the jail. Get inside the jail, not in handcuffs.”

Advocate Page Dukes: 

  • “Think about the way you talk about people who are impacted by the criminal legal system. … When we call people ‘inmates’ we see them as less than human and we see them as somehow less deserving of things like health care, or even of being alive. It’s important for us to restore dignity to people, and the easiest way to do that is to call them ‘people’.”

You can watch the panel discussion in full at this link.

Have a question, comment or story idea? Email me at

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Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Email him at Prior to joining The Current,...