Georgia Prisons Are in Crisis—and Punishing Trans Women for It

    The Georgia Department of Corrections is in freefall. By the time the US Department of Justice opened an investigation in September 2021, at least 86 prisoners had died by homicide or suicide since the beginning of 2020. A few days before that investigation was announced, a separate lawsuit was filed against GDC over the inhumane conditions prisoners are subjected to while in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, the DOJ continued an investigation into sexual assault of the state’s LGBTQ prisoners, which has been open since 2016. 

    A factor these injustices have in common: understaffing. At a GDC budget hearing in January, Commissioner Timothy Ward acknowledged the 49 percent turnover rate among corrections officers but attempted to blame the crisis on prisoners themselves. He claimed that aging and outdated facilities were becoming filled with “increasingly violent offenders,” who required higher levels of staffing to keep under control.

    “Gross understaffing directly contributes to the violence, and that includes inmate-on-inmate as well as staff-on-inmate violence,” prisoner rights advocate Susan Sparks-Burns told Filter. Burns runs the Facebook group They Have No Voice, a forum where thousands of members discuss the inhumane conditions their loved ones are facing inside Georgia’s prisons.

    “He is locked in a cell because there are no staff to run the facility,” Cindy Lynn, whose son-in-law is incarcerated in a GDC prison, told Filter. “Inmates around him are being stabbed daily. Some die. He begs me daily to help him. I try, but I don’t know what else to do. Prison officials don’t return calls. He is not being fed like he’s supposed to.”

    In a system so severely under-resourced, everyone suffers. But the increasing violence, the catastrophic solitary confinement practices and the sexual abuse of queer and trans prisoners are often connected, manifesting in one particularly cruel way: the practice of underpaid, overworked staff covering up violent sexual assaults on trans women in men’s prisons by throwing the survivors into solitary.

    I can pinpoint a rapid downturn in staffing in late 2018, which became a crisis in 2020.

    Prison officials have developed the practice of simply “disappearing” the very prisoners who are most vulnerable, placing them into 24/7 administrative segregation. 

    So, in effect, the rape survivor is penalized for coming forth to seek protection or redress, segregated with no privileges, in abysmal conditions of confinement, and with even less access to correctional officers or medical staff. The prisoners in these segregation units are behind doors all day, thus in the minds of prison officials—already short of staff—there is no reason to assign officers to work these units. Which leads to more of the same: medical crises, deaths due to negligence.

    I can pinpoint a rapid downturn in staffing that began in late 2018 and became a crisis in 2020. That summer, I was physically and sexual assaulted. I attempted to file my Prison Rape Elimination Act report verbally, as well as twice through written letters. Prison staff refused to process them; no official complaint was ever recorded. Instead, they transferred me to a different facility, Valdosta State Prison, where I was placed in solitary isolation for the next three months. 

    I filed numerous institutional grievance complaints about the conditions. A week without a mattress; three months without my personal property or hygiene products, or any cleaning products despite feces on the walls; three months without lights; two months without running water; one shower a week, if lucky; inedible food.

    GDC understaffing is so grave that it is commonplace to hear stories like mine, or worse. Prison officials, specifically Timothy Ward and GDC Mental Health Director Javel Jackson, punished me for being physically and sexually assaulted. Calling prolonged administrative segregation in a human-waste covered cell “mental health observation” doesn’t make it so. GDC did not provide a response to Filter‘s request for comment by publication time.

    She was blamed for “enticing” the attack, and placed in segregation.

    Haiti Zoe’elle Hayes-Turner was sexually assaulted at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in 2018. Upon her intake to serve a relatively short sentence for a nonviolent fraud charge, 31-year-old Hayes-Turner had told prison staff that she was trans and on hormone replacement therapy, and that she was afraid for her life. She just wanted to serve her time and make it home to her daughter. They locked her in a cell with a man she describes as a known gang member serving a life sentence for murder.

    She estimated eight or nine of his associates popped the door’s locking mechanism and tried to rush in. Even though this was supposedly a maximum-security prison, it took more than five minutes before COs could be found to respond to the attack, during which she defended herself with a broom handle and a combination lock tied to a string.

    “Understaffing is compounded by the fact that prison officials intentionally disregard the requirements of prisoner classification and stratification as it relates to housing,” she wrote to Filter.  “Thankfully the close quarters of the cell helped me to defend myself because only so many could close in on me.”

    She was blamed for “enticing” the attack, and placed in segregation. Her attackers were not penalized. After a week in isolation, she was transferred to a new facility—where she went straight into isolation once again.

    She described these periods as filled with cockroaches, no ventilation, incessant noise, little or no water and “New York City alley-cat rats.”

    In 2015, Ashley Diamond won a pivotal lawsuit she’d brought against GDC for its failure to provide adequate medical care to trans prisoners. Since re-entering GDC custody in 2019, she has filed a second suit—for GDC’s failure to protect her from multiple instances of physical and sexual assault. Diamond, too, has been targeted for solitary confinement while in GDC custody. She has helped pave the way for not just DOJ action, but for other trans prisoners to file lawsuits of their own.

    Instead of investing in Black and Brown communities, transformative justice initiatives or prisoner re-entry programs, the state of Georgia is preparing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to open two new prison facilities—buying one and building another—to replace four of the system’s oldest facilities.

    How will they be adequately staffed? How will the conditions prisoners face inside these new facilities—particularly trans prisoners vulnerable to assault—be any more humane than before?

     


     

    Photograph of Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison cell block via GDC

    • C Dreams is a writer and advocate interested in prison/criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction and government/cultural criticism. She has studied history/theology with the Third Order of Carmelites and completed degrees in Systematic Theology. She is currently studying law.

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