'A tour through circles of hell'

July 10, 1996|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

ATLANTA -- With the world streaming in for the Summer Olympics, Georgia has a self-inflicted penal tragedy on its hands.

Prison reforms once seen as a national model lie in shambles. Prison lockdowns, possibly riots, loom -- and not just because up to 1,200 prison security staff are being diverted to guard the Olympics. Georgia's penal system has been demoralized by surprise prison raids of a politicized corrections administration, together with layoffs of experienced top staff and wardens.

Write it off to the ''law-'n'-order'' politics of the '90s. Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, apparently seeking to be as tough on criminals as the rising Southern Republicans, last year eased out a nationally respected corrections director, Allen Ault.

The successor: Wayne Garner, an undertaker, ex-state senator, parole-board chair and political crony of the governor. Mr. Garner was soon quoted saying that 30 to 35 percent of the convicts being incarcerated by Georgia ''ain't fit to kill.''

He denied convicts permission to work out with weights -- even those paid for by the inmates themselves. He required all able-bodied prisoners walk four miles a day, regardless of rain, cold or summer heat, and Neal R. Peirce

dig ditches even where ditches aren't needed. He cut back on hot meals, reduced educational and substance-abuse programs, restricted TV and telephone use.

Then Mr. Garner ordered a series of prison shakedowns, ostensibly to rout out troublemakers and contraband. ''Under my administration,'' he said, ''two or three years in prison will be equivalent to 10.''

Alternatives to prison

All this marked a dramatic turnaround in Georgia. Once known for violence-prone prisons and infamous chain gangs, the state in the '80s introduced a remarkably thoughtful program of alternatives to incarceration, ranging from intensive probation to halfway work camps to mandatory community service for lesser offenses. For these reforms, Georgia in 1987 won one of the Ford Foundation's awards for Innovation in State and Local Government.

Progress, including introduction of a sophisticated inmate-management system, continued until last autumn. But in recent months, many dedicated reformers have been fired. Wardens fear for their jobs. Rehabilitation programs are virtually dead.

Georgia's regression reflects a national trend of politicians trying to follow public opinion in getting tough with prisoners. An NBC poll last year found 82 percent of Americans think life in prison is too easy. More than two-thirds of Georgians, polled last winter, said they wanted prisoners chained while they labor beside public highways.

Leg-ironed work crews have recently been instituted in Alabama, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin. Gov. William Weld, R-Mass., apparently speaks for many when he argues prisons should be ''a tour through the circles of hell,'' where inmates should learn only ''the joys of busting rocks.''

Black boots

Georgia's new corrections chief, Mr. Garner, provides a foreboding picture in black uniform and black boots to match his own riot squads. He leads early morning raids on unsuspecting prisons, a canine unit in tow. Wardens and inmates are caught by surprise. Moving cellblock to cellblock, guards lock inmates inside and order them to strip to be searched. Then the prisoners are herded outside so officers can tear up their cells in search of contraband, often smashing prisoners' Walkman radios in the process.

Little serious contraband has been found -- a few razor blades here, a tattoo machine there, some drugs. But Mr. Garner seized on the infractions to justify firing wardens and other staff of the old regime. Inmates who show resistance or complain are transferred to higher-security prisons, probably in violation of legal due process.

After a raid at the Wayne Correctional Institution, inmates charged that guards repeatedly threw a convicted thief up in the air, letting him fall on his face, then punched him in the groin and stomped his genitals. This and similar alleged incidents are reportedly under federal investigation.

Combine the tensions generated by such incidents, the lockdown rumored for the Olympics and summer temperatures soaring to 100 degrees or more in Georgia prison cells, and the state will be very lucky to avoid ugly incidents in the next weeks.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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