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WALB Investigates: DOJ calls extreme staffing shortages a ‘persistent problem’ in Georgia prisons

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 6:15 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 14, 2021 at 8:03 PM EDT
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ALBANY, Ga. (WALB) - As the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigates how inmates are treated in Georgia’s state prisons, one of their major concerns is staffing shortages.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division announced the investigation during a press conference last month.

Clarke said the DOJ’s investigation revolves largely around the number of inmate-to-inmate assaults in Georgia prisons and how they’re allowed to happen.

According to documents provided by GDC, on Jan. 1, 2015, 12% of all GDC state prison staff...
According to documents provided by GDC, on Jan. 1, 2015, 12% of all GDC state prison staff positions were vacant. Five years later, on Jan. 1, 2019, that had gone up to 18%.(WALB)

“Extreme staffing shortages and high turnover among corrections officers are persistent problems in Georgia,” Clarke said, adding a lack of staffing could lead to a dangerous environment. “It can lead to inadequate supervision and violence.”

According to Clarke, reports of violence in Georgia prisons led the DOJ to step in.

“Concerned citizens, family members and civil rights organizations — as well as photographs and videos leaked to social media and through other channels — have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons,” she said.

READ MORE: Parents sue Ga. corrections department, others over transgender inmate’s 2017 suicide

That included a violent riot at Ware State Prison last year.

Clarke referenced what she called “countless” violent assaults in Georgia prisons, including stabbings and beatings, some of which left inmates dead.

“In 2020, at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide,” Clarke said.

WALB requested staffing numbers for Georgia state prisons for a period of 2015 to 2019.

On Jan. 1, 2015, 12% of all Georgia Department of Corrections state prison staff positions were vacant.

Five years later, on Jan. 1, 2019, that had gone up to 18%.

Experts say some concerns that could lead to job vacancies in this field include safety and pay.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said working in a correctional institution can be stressful and dangerous.

BLS said correctional officers and jailers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all jobs, often from confrontations with inmates.

How much do state prison employees get paid?

WALB requested salary scales for GDC staff.

In 2020, a Georgia state prison correctional officer could earn between a minimum of $27,936 annually to a maximum of $45,884.42 annually.

Here is the breakdown of minimum and maximum possible salaries for other correctional positions:

  • Correctional sergeants could earn between $35,479 annually and $50,472.86 annually
  • Correctional lieutenants could earn between $37,558 annually and $55,520.14 annually
  • Correctional captains could earn between $40,570 annually and $62,868.40 annually
  • Correctional unit managers could earn between $44,627 annually and $62.868.40 annually
  • Correctional assistant superintendents could earn between $52,048 annually and $69,783.92 annually
  • Correctional superintendents could earn between $59,451 annually and $85,980.77 annually
  • Correctional senior managers could earn between $54,536.37 annually and $95,438.66 annually

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for correctional officers and jailers across the country was $47,440 annually as of May 2020.

This means half the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.

BLS data showed that on average, all corrections officers in Georgia earned the third lowest annual wage in the country at that time, which was $35,210 annually.

According to the BLS, correctional officers in only Mississippi and Missouri earned less on average.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary also spoke during the press conference last month.

He stressed the importance of these staff members.

“We work closely on a daily basis with our Georgia state law enforcement and corrections officer partners,” Leary said. “Those men and women are indispensable to our united goal of achieving a safer Georgia.”

However, he and Clarke maintained that there must be accountability if there are any problems that lead to unsafe environments.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary said it's unconstitutional...
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary said it's unconstitutional for inmates to be allowed to violently assault other inmates.(WALB)

“Prison conditions that enable inmates to engage in dangerous and deadly activity constitute an injustice,” Leary said. “As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously observed, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.(WALB)

“Ensuring lawful and humane conditions inside our nation’s jails and prisons is a top priority,” Clarke said.

The Department of Justice said that if their investigation finds a systemic constitutional violation, they will let the State of Georgia know and would then work with the state to establish solutions.

It’s not clear how long that investigation could take.

WALB is continuing to investigate the treatment of inmates in Georgia prisons and how it relates to inmate violence and suicides.

We sent multiple emails to the Georgia Department of Corrections with questions about this story but have not heard back.

WALB has reached out to multiple advocacy agencies for correctional officers for comment but did not receive a response.

If you are a corrections officer in a Georgia prison and want to share your story, email us at news@walb.com.

Stay tuned as WALB Investigates looks deeper into a lawsuit alleging a lack of access to mental health care for one inmate and what advocates say should change to protect more people in prisons.

Copyright 2021 WALB. All rights reserved.

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