Prison Shake-up to Protect Youth

18th November, 2004
Atlanta Journal Constitution
Carlos Campos

State to make Alto mostly for women

Corrections officials are making sweeping changes to a North Georgia prison where, critics charge, some of the state's youngest inmates are regularly subjected to rapes and other brutal attacks.

The state plans to turn Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto into a women's prison, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Most of Arrendale's 1,200 adult male inmates - more than half of whom are 25 and younger - will be dispersed to prisons throughout the state. The prison's 11 juveniles - under age 17 - will remain at Arrendale, segregated from the female inmates.

About 140 "at risk" inmates - 17 to 20 years old - who are considered too vulnerable to enter the adult prison population would be housed separately from the juveniles on the Arrendale compound northeast of Gainesville.

Georgia corrections officials said the plans will be submitted in federal court today in response to allegations by the Southern Center for Human Rights that the state is not doing enough to prevent attacks on inmates.

The Atlanta-based advocacy group has asked the court to force the prison system to take steps to stop violent attacks at the prison. The center documented at least 45 beatings and sexual assaults at Arrendale and claims the corrections department is failing to protect inmates.

Inmates have told the center's investigators that they regularly fight off attempted sexual assaults or succumb to rape. Others say they have been beaten by other inmates with padlocks placed in socks and at the end of belts, or cut and stabbed with homemade knives.

Arrendale holds many of the state's youngest inmates, including 11 juveniles, ages 13 to 16, who were convicted as adults. An additional 71 inmates at Arrendale are 17 years old.

Southern Center for Human Rights lawyers contend those inmates will leave prison with more serious behavior problems than when they entered, due to their brutal struggle to survive.

In February, 18-year-old Wayne Boatwright Jr. was strangled in his cell at Arrendale. His family has settled a lawsuit against the state for $100,000.

Sarah Geraghty, the lead lawyer in the Arrendale case for the Southern Center, said Thursday the organization was "extremely pleased" by the state's plan to change the population of the prison.

"We hope that it will protect young inmates and that it will possibly prevent another Wayne Boatwright," Geraghty said.
The human rights center is particularly pleased that the prison system will be segregating the 17-to-20-year-olds who may not be ready to be housed with other adult prisoners, she said.

Geraghty, who is working with volunteer lawyers from King & Spalding in Atlanta, declined to predict what effect the changes would have on the center's pending legal case against the state.

Corrections Commissioner James Donald said Thursday that the transfer of inmates from Arrendale has begun and should be complete by April 1.

Donald said economics played a major role in the decision to shuffle the prison population.

Corrections officials say they want to better utilize Washington State Prison, a 1,200-inmate close-security women's prison in east Georgia. Because of its modern layout, that facility is cheaper to operate than Arrendale, which dates to the 1920s.

Moving the female prisoners, considered a lesser security risk, to Arrendale should save money, because fewer guards will be needed to monitor them, the agency said.

Donald acknowledged that Arrendale's problems factored into the decision.

"I'm not going be disingenuous and tell you it didn't go unnoticed that this decision would help us at Arrendale," he said. "I clearly understand my obligation to protect not just the public at large, but the sons and daughters of Georgia that are given to me as wards of the state in our facilities, and we work real hard at that."
Corrections officials have acknowledged that Arrendale, which has eight housing units built over several decades, is more difficult to keep secure due to the layout of some of the cellblocks. Some of the attacks at Arrendale have occurred in an area where inmates live in dormitory-style housing, with up to eight inmates sharing a room. The dorm is configured in such a way that it is difficult for guards to make routine visual checks.

Prison officials also say young inmates are more prone to violence than older prisoners. Department of Corrections statistics show Arrendale has more violent incidents than any other Georgia prison with the exception of the maximum security facility at Reidsville.

In a court filing, Donald said keeping Arrendale properly staffed with guards has been difficult due to "a competitive job market" in Habersham County. Southern Center for Human Rights lawyers have argued that understaffing and lax security have been problems at the prison.

Farrell Callahan of Cartersville, whose 18-year-old son is serving a 15-year sentence at Arrendale for armed robbery, said she is not certain the prison system's actions will result in improvement. Callahan said her son has witnessed "graphic" incidents at Arrendale that she fears will hinder his rehabilitation.

"On paper, the prison is to function a certain way, and it's not functioning that way," she said. "If you're going to keep the same regime, who's to say that it's going to improve? You may take away some of the risk, because you're taking away some of the older and more violent offenders, but you're keeping the same administration."