View Full Version : ARTICLE: Surviving behind bars (violence at Alto Prison, GA)

08-08-2004, 11:29 AM
Surviving behind bars
Violence stalks young men in Alto prison, critics say
Published on: 08/07/04

Alto This tiny northeast Georgia town's name has long been synonymous with troubled young men.

Once a reform school for boys, Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto holds the state's youngest felons. Arrendale has always had the potential for danger, holding killers, armed robbers, kidnappers and rapists in close quarters.

Now an Atlanta organization with a record of working to clean up prisons says violent assaults at Arrendale are rampant. The Southern Center for Human Rights says young inmates must fight daily for survival or succumb to rape.

In February, an 18-year-old inmate was raped and strangled in his cell.

Violence in Georgia prisons is not rare, but advocates say inmates as young as 17 have become easy prey for older men held in Arrendale.

"What are these young men going to be like when they leave prison and re-enter society?" asked Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for the center.

Arrendale had the prison system's second-highest rate of violent disciplinary infractions in 2003, a Department of Corrections study shows. Only Georgia State Prison at Reidsville notorious for holding the state's most dangerous inmates has a higher rate.

Lynn Hembree of Acworth said she constantly worries about her son. Jason Christopher Hembree, 18, serving a three-year sentence for aggravated assault, has had to fight off rape attempts, his mother said.

Hembree said her son has bipolar disorder and she is worried he is going to "come out worse than he went in, or he's not going to come out at all. The longer he stays in there, the less I have hope for him," she said.

The Southern Center for Human Rights has compiled a partial list of fights, beatings, injuries and sexual assaults at Arrendale since 2001. They include reports of inmates bashed in the face and head with weapons fashioned by placing steel padlocks inside socks and laundry bags or at the end of a belt; inmates raped, sometimes by more than one inmate; inmates attacked by other inmates with broomsticks, trash cans, metal door plates and handmade knives.

The center also says inmates are able to rig door locks so they can slip out of their cells to attack others.

Warden Tony Turpin maintains that the violence is not widespread and that the prison is safer than in the past.

"It is not a dangerous, out-of-control facility," Turpin said in an interview. "Do incidents occur? Sure they do."

Turpin said young men are more prone to violence because they often lack the education, maturity and values to control themselves.

Turpin grew up in Habersham County, home to Arrendale. He remembers the threat many Georgia boys heard.

"I grew up [hearing], 'If you do wrong, you'll go to Alto,' " said Turpin, 43. He eventually did go to Alto as a guard. He returned in 2002 as warden.

Arrendale holds 1,200 of the state's youngest felons. There are 304 inmates at Arrendale under 21. Twelve of the prison's inmates are under 17. The youngest is 15.

Turpin doesn't dispute that Arrendale can be a violent place. Asked about the incidents, he displayed a roster showing the crimes committed by some of the prison's young residents: murder, armed robbery, rape, kidnapping, aggravated child molestation, arson.

Statistics seem to back up the claim that young men are prone to violence.

Inmates 17 and under violate prison rules about 15 times a year, according to a Department of Corrections study. By the time an inmate is 33 years old, that average has dropped to only one violation a year.

Turpin maintains that Arrendale is improving. The number of disciplinary infractions peaked in 1998 with 8,224 violations. That number had dropped to 3,298 by last year. Violent infractions dropped from 1,015 to 512 during that period.

A few young Arrendale inmates told a reporter that they don't believe the assaults and rapes are widespread. But if you look for trouble you will find it, they said.

"It's really how you make it in here, how you carry yourself," said 16-year-old Anthony Q. Jernigan of Atlanta, serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated assault and armed robbery.

Inmate Robert Leon Ware, 17, of Savannah will remain a "brown stripe" the prison name for a juvenile offender sentenced as an adult for only a short time longer. He will soon be issued a new uniform, with a blue stripe down the pants legs, and join the adult population in a ritual known as "crossing the yard." Juveniles are kept in separate cellblocks from adult inmates, separated only by a recreation yard.

"I stay to myself," said Ware, serving a 10-year sentence for vehicular homicide. "I don't talk to anybody if I don't know them."

Inmate Josh Kernea, 18, crossed the yard at Alto in 2003. "I was kind of on guard, waiting for somebody to try me," said Kernea, of Ringgold, serving a seven-year sentence for false imprisonment. "I ain't been tried. I mind my own business. I don't go around acting stupid."

But former Arrendale inmate Shane Prather, 25, said trouble finds even those trying to avoid it. Prather said he was attacked twice by inmates who wanted to rape him. Prather fought them off, but one attack required 50 stitches to close stab wounds, he said.

"If you're young and you go in there, you're gonna get tried up [tested] from the get-go," said Prather, a Conyers resident who was released last year after serving four years for statutory rape. "They basically want you to fight. If you fall weak, they're going to try to rape you."

Prather and the human rights center believe incidents of violence and rape at Arrendale are underreported. Inmates may be ashamed to admit they were raped or afraid to tell authorities they've been attacked for fear of retribution. Prather estimated that there were two or three rapes and two stabbings a day while he was in the prison.

Crackdown on fighting

Turpin would not discuss any specific incidents at Arrendale. But he said the prison operates by a unique code of conduct difficult for outsiders to understand.

"If you say the wrong thing to the wrong person . . . if you're a gang member, your chances of getting in trouble in here increase," Turpin said. "If you come in here and steal, you're going to increase your chances. If you come in here and act like you're undefeatable, somebody will challenge you."

Turpin says he has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for fighting. It now means a guaranteed trip to solitary confinement, where inmates are locked in a steel-door cell for 23 hours a day. Turpin also said guards are now required to check door locks on cells to make sure inmates haven't tampered with them.

Center lawyers are considering litigation against the Department of Corrections, but they say they would rather work with the department to improve conditions at Arrendale.

Last month, they took their concerns to the department's governing board. Investigators and lawyers for the human rights center visit the prison weekly, interviewing inmates and reviewing reports of violent incidents.

Officials seek advice

The center wants prison officials to hire an outside consultant to advise the department on how to improve security. It also says more guards are needed to patrol the prison's dormitories.

Prison officials have not yet responded to the center's list of recommendations. Corrections lawyer Bill Amideo said last week that the prison system can handle any problems at Arrendale on its own.

But prison officials say they have asked the National Institute of Corrections to come in and make recommendations to improve the Georgia prison system, including Arrendale.

Officials acknowledge that a shortage of guards is a constant challenge. Arrendale employs 281 corrections officers and has 19 vacancies, Turpin said.

The jobs are hard to fill, and state funding has dipped even as the prison population has climbed.

State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) sponsored a public hearing at the state Capitol last week, where he and four other lawmakers heard from friends, relatives and supporters of Arrendale inmates.

"It reinforces my view that Arrendale is out of control and that what you have there is a culture of brutality and violence," Fort said of the hearing. "And that the understaffing, the low pay, the indifference of the people running the place has all come together to create an atmosphere that's out of control."

Fort said he plans to make violence at Arrendale and other prisons a topic when the Legislature convenes in January.

Until then, prison officials need to move away from their attitude that violence is inevitable, said the Southern Center's Geraghty.

"It's an attitude of 'boys will be boys,' " Geraghty said. "And that's an attitude that I find very disturbing when we're talking about the safety of young children."

08-11-2004, 08:52 AM
My best friend is at Arrendale. This environment is soooo troubling..and scary...