Many effects of the understaffing crisis within the Georgia Department of Corrections have been well-documented, if not actually addressed. Trans women disappeared into administrative segregation for attempting to report their rapes. Less health care, more physical and sexual violence. A DIY insecticide-based drug supply filling the void left by now-absent COs.
What has not received much attention is that inside many GDC facilities, there is also a housing crisis. Since the the beginning of the pandemic, an increasing number of prisoners have lost access to a cell or dormitory bed. Overnight, they find themselves in the nightmarish position of being simultaneously incarcerated and unhoused.
On any given day, there are few enough COs around that some prisons are effectively run by prisoners now. Gang control has led to a rise in extortion, as well as debt. Vulnerable prisoners—very young, very old, disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill, queer, trans—are driven out of their assigned dormitories or cells as the more powerful prisoners became more organized.
New arrivals report being escorted to their rooms and immediately swarmed by a crew of yelling prisoners, their belongings seized and dumped out onto the floor. Once everything of value had been taken—state-issued clothes, the clothes ordered by loved ones, pillow, bedding, soap, shampoo—the unlucky prisoner would realize that the room itself had been taken, too.
Encampments have formed in hallways, and in common areas like TV rooms. Some people sleep in shower stalls. Some sleep out in the yard, under awnings or open sky. One man incarcerated in Autry State Prison said he and a number of others spent last winter outside. They lined milk crates to stay warm, and lit fires in plant pots and jumbo mayonnaise containers.
Part of the reasons the public doesn’t hear much about unhoused prisoners is that they tend to not have their own phones, for obvious reasons, and not many ways to make their voice heard by anyone outside their prison. Similarly, it’s difficult for anyone in the free world or in a different facility to reach them.
With the aid of a mutual contact who facilitated some scheduling and communication logistics, Filter spoke with a man at a medium-security GDC prison who’s been incarcerated for seven years, with three to go. For over four months now he’s slept outside, in a courtyard between two buildings.
“You can’t go to the hole and say, I’m in danger, can I live there. They won’t let you anymore.”
C Dreams: What was it about the pandemic that made this environment where all of a sudden more and more prisoners are unhoused?
The staff’s pretty much nonexistent. They’re nonexistent. What can they do, is how they feel. For two years. Bullies: Suddenly you call for help; inmates is the only ones that show up now.
[Staff] got their pick, their favorites. If you ain’t it, you pretty much totally ignored.
Are your prison administrators aware of your living situation? That you’re living outside, in a courtyard?
I’ve been ignored by administration several times about not having a place to stay. Or beat up for being in the wrong place, y’know. Wrong room.
Five, 10 times they took me to a bed but, y’know. They gotta go home, too.
They’ll put you in a room, but then the other prisoners won’t let you stay there?
Exactly. You can’t go to the hole. They won’t let you. You can’t just go up there and say, I’m in danger, can I live there, and just go to the hole anymore.
Why have other prisoners made you homeless?
For me, it was guys extorting. Pay for this, pay for something. Three or four times.
When you were living in a cell, were you ever physically or sexually assaulted?
On a daily basis. Not sexually, really. Propositioning, that happens all the time. All the time. Sometimes you can’t… you just have to live with it, is what they say.
And going to administrators would put you at risk of harm from other prisoners?
Oh, yeah. They’d call [you] a snitch. That’d be the last thing you’d do.
Do you have any personal property? Your standard-issue prison uniforms, underwear, shoes?
Most of all that’s been lost, long time ago. [Taken] by other prisoners. Or administration took it. Because I didn’t have it in the right place.
“There’s no roof over where I sleep tonight. Just chain link.”
Is there any sense of common identity or community with the other homeless prisoners? Do you guys band together?
Well, you get to know the guys a little bit. But do we like each other? We’ll fight over a biscuit. Over a soup.
Do you feel like you’re physically in danger?
All the time.
Do you fear for your life?
No. I mean—no, not really, but that’s more a religious thing, I think. I don’t fear for that so much.
Faith sustains you through this?
Absolutely. I mean, there’s no roof over where I sleep tonight. There’s no roof over where I sleep tonight. Just chain link.
What are you going to do when it gets cold?
They’ll just transfer me I guess. You get tired of being in their face and asking them for stuff. Guys take it the wrong way, makes things even harder.
I just want to say thank you so much for telling your story. And I really, I know that it’s kind of empty words but like, my heart is with you and my thoughts are with you.
Can I just, is there any way for me to… I just want to say the laws have to change. There has to be some sort of, something done here. Because they don’t want to let me out. And they don’t want to let me live here.
Photograph from inside GDC by anonymous