A lack of resources and staff contributed to an unsafe environment at Athens-Clarke County Jail, according to a former employee, showing little change from a previous audit highlighting similar concerns.
“Jail was dangerous,” former Athens-Clarke County Jail Major Jessica Goings told the audience. “And it was based on the vision and the theology behind how to rehabilitate, which took away a lot of the control that the officers had that would have allowed an officer to have control.”
Goings was one of many speakers at a forum on prison conditions organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement on March 31. Twenty people were present at the AADM headquarters, and many more were connecting on Zoom.
“A lot of people don’t realize that people who feel ignored, after going through the process, they contact AADM,” said AADM President Mokah Jasmine Johnson. “A lot of people don’t understand the role we play. We cannot ignore these people.
Sheriff John Q. Williams did not respond to requests for comment on the charges or the state of the jail.
Goings, who was employed at the prison for 25 years before being fired in February, described an environment where staff sometimes significantly outnumbered inmates. She said drug distribution has also become a significant issue, with the use of fentanyl becoming an “epidemic” over the past year.
According to documents obtained by the Athens Banner-Herald, Goings informed human resources of his concerns — ranging from security issues in the prison to inappropriate misconduct among staff — in August 2021.
Goings also expressed concerns about retaliation for his official complaint and his medical condition. Although she was fired in February, the terms of that action were not immediately available to the Banner-Herald.
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In addition to staffing shortages, inmates over the years reached a level where they became confrontational, Goings said, while officers were left with nothing to protect themselves.
As the problem worsened, officials acknowledged in 2015 that there was a gang problem at the prison.
“In 2015 when we moved to the new prison, we were never ready,” she said. “We were already understaffed in the old prison and there were concerns about how we were going to staff this new prison.”
Goings said an operational level of the jail would consist of 22 people, and when Sheriff Ira Edwards ran the jail there were usually 13 to 17. That was eventually reduced to 12, she said, who included three supervisors.
Goings’ description of the jail also showed little change from responses from an audit conducted by the city in 2018 and accepted by the mayor and commission in 2019.
Stephanie Maddox, a former Athens-Clarke County internal auditor who led the audit at the time, said the audit outlined four main areas of concern: staff shortages, leadership morale, safety and security, and lack of appropriate training.
“The big one was the lack of staff,” Maddox said, adding that the jail and bail divisions were understaffed.
The prison division’s staffing level was not even sufficient to maintain or move assignments, she said. This resulted in the transfer of a large part of the overtime to the staff.
“It had a significant impact on employee morale,” Maddox said. “The main reason was that overtime was mandatory due to recruitment and retention, staff shortages and high turnover rates.”
More than half of respondents to an anonymous survey further said prison security needed to be improved, she said.
“They said components of the prison operations are unsafe and expose the entire prison to potential security threats,” Maddox said, adding that employees felt vulnerable calling for reinforcements. due to lack of staff.
Inmates were also encouraged to continue negative behavior due to lack of staff or resources, she said.
“The majority of interviews reported that the general consensus among staff was that inmates run the prison,” Maddox said.
The initial scope of the audit focused on staffing and supporting the sheriff’s office, she said, but later expanded to cover other issues that became intertwined.
Knowa Johnson, director of AADM, said his organization set up the forum after families of incarcerated relatives raised concerns about his current condition.
Commissioner Mariah Parker echoed similar sentiments. Parker said that over the past six months they have seen an increase in calls and emails from people with loved ones in jail and from people who are in jails themselves.
“This sense of being in a time where there is a critical mass of attention and concern around these issues, maybe this is a real opportunity for us to make change,” they said. .
Parker described complaints ranging from loved ones who have gone into debt trying to stay in touch with those in prison, to inmates not being provided with basic necessities. They added that thinking about how the mayor and commission uses the funds can be helpful in changing those conditions.
“Many, if not all, changes in government are the result of the collective action of people raising issues and making collective demands,” Parker said. “If it’s time for another audit of the sheriff’s office, then that’s something that can be raised with the audit committee and other members of government to get further follow-up on what we can say. comprehensively what is happening in prison today.”