Off the railroad track, past the county dump, the private GEO prison, potter’s field, wrecked vehicles held by the sheriff’s department, and the police firing range, at the end of a rural dead-end road, the Clayton County Correctional Institution‘s foreboding fences await state prisoners.
The Clayton Crescent was granted rare behind-the-scenes access to the medium-security prison on the condition that we did not photograph any of the inmates’ faces. (We also did not speak with any of the inmates we saw.) After signing in, showing ID, and going through a security check, Deputy Warden Ray Amey and Deputy Warden Neysa Mayfield walked The Clayton Crescent through the facility.
The prison is one of 21 county prisons statewide. A check of Georgia Department of Corrections records shows current inmates at this prison are serving time on charges like possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine or marijuana, burglary, robbery, racketeering, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, trafficking cocaine or methamphetamine, aggravated assault (including on a police officer), dogfighting, vehicular homicide, kidnapping, aggravated stalking, and fleeing or obstructing law enforcement, among other serious crimes. Most of the inmates are serving time for multiple offenses.
Prison is not jail
The difference between inmates here and pretrial detainees at the Clayton County Jail is that every inmate in the Clayton County Correctional Institution has been found guilty of their charges by a jury. Simply being arrested, charged, and thrown in jail does not mean someone is guilty of a crime. That’s the job of a jury to decide in a court of law because everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. To be sure, some Clayton County Jail pretrial detainees eventually may find themselves here or at another state prison. Many others will not, for many reasons.
The county runs the prison but the inmates are sent there by the Georgia Department of Corrections. And they are sent there to work.
“This is a working facility,” Amey said. “We provide the county with labor. We do any type of labor. The inmates go out in vans. We have shovels and rakes in the trailer. We cut grass all over Clayton County.”
They also dig graves at the nearby potter’s field, where indigent people are buried.
That labor saves the county a lot of money.
The prison’s budget, according to the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, was just over $6 million. By comparison, the Sheriff’s Department’s budget came in at just under $38 million. However, both agencies say that’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office runs the jail, but it also serves warrants and eviction notices, writes traffic tickets, and performs some law enforcement duties. The jail and its staff are a subset of the larger sheriff’s department. (The Clayton County Sheriff’s Department is also separate from the Clayton County Police Department, which is charged with law enforcement duties and investigations in Clayton County and whose officers are POST-certified.)
See the entry-level corrections officer job requirements for the prison (requires Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST, certification) and the jail (does not require POST certification):
Some inmates ride mowers along the county’s byways when constituents complain to their commissioner about tall weeds or overgrown rights-of-way. Others wash the prison uniforms, cut hair, cook for the other inmates, or scrub floors.
Those mirror-shine floors are the first clue that inmates work. Hard.
“We do everything in house,” Amey explained. “Feeding, cooking, medical, dental. We have a nurse on staff. Inmates out on detail a lot of times get hurt. We send an offier to pick them up and bring them back here. If the injury is severe, we call EMS to transport them to the hospital. Or if the nurse or doctor can’t treat them here, we will send them out for treatment.”
Lisa Smith, the nurse, has worked at the Clayton County prison for seven years.
“We have dental weekly. The doctor comes weekly,” Smith said. “It’s mostly colds and allergies. Thank goodness we don’t have many serious injuries.”
During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, Warden Dennis Nelson spoke with The Clayton Crescent about the relative lack of inmate cases at the prison.
At that time, the Clayton County Health District told the Clayton County Jail that it had an outbreak. Hill’s spokeperson and legal advisor, Alan Parker, denied there was an outbreak. At least one pretrial detainee at the jail died of COVID-19. Zoom video of first appearance hearings showed pretrial detainees using towels and other items to fashion makeshift face masks. CCSO denied there was a problem with COVID-19 at the jail at first. After attorneys for the Southern Center for Human Rights filed suit, pretrial detainees were given masks and COVID-19 education. The Clayton Crescent also spoke with SCHR’s attorneys about the problem:
The prison population is not the same as the jail population, Nelson pointed out. At the October 4 Board of Commissioners meeting, Nelson and CCSO Major Brandon Criss were called up to speak about their respective facilities. Criss argued that jailers should be paid what correctional officers at the prison are paid because, he said, the jail was more dangerous than the prison. Nelson pointed out that the prison holds inmates convicted of serious crimes, that it was a correctional facility actually in the business of correcting inmates’ behaviors and getting them back into society, and that, unlike the jail, his correctional officers are POST-certified, have arrest powers, must qualify on the firing range, and carry weapons inside the facility.
“The jailers that work in a sheriff’s office go through an 80-hour course. They go through basic jailer training,” Nelson told the BOC. “It’s a registration, it’s not considered one of the POST certifications as peace officer, corrections officer, probation officer. The major difference is, we go through 240 hours’ training, we have arrest powers, and we are certified to carry firearms. And it is a different job duty. We’re not dealing with booking in people. We’re dealing with state-convicted felon inmates. And of course, we have our officers out on the street, they’re supervising inmates, they have to be armed. Because some of these folks are dangerous. I’m not gonna say the jail doesn’t have dangerous people, either. But that’s the basic difference. There’s a basic jailer position, and then there’s a corrections officer position, and the corrections officer position is included under the Peace Officer Standards and Training Act under the peace officer designation.”
See the application to become a POST-certified corrections officer:
Shiny floors, quiet halls
Entering the main prison area, the first thing one sees is the control station, where two correctional officers watched a bank of video monitors. On both sides of the station, behind huge glass windows, are two narrow day rooms, where a few prisoners hung out. Inmates can watch TV from about 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., which is also when the phones are turned on.
Behind each of those dayrooms is another huge glass window separating the dayroom from a large open dormitory, filled with steel bunk beds for 60 inmates. Most of the dorms were empty mid-morning. One was filled with sleeping inmates. Some inmates work different shifts. In this case, Nelson said, a shortage of correctional officers meant those men could not go out and cut grass.
Amey opened the door to an empty room with skinny vertical windows, giving it the feel of a church school classroom. “This is the visiting area,” he said. “We set up tables and chairs and the inmates visit there. We had partitions during COVID, but now it’s just chairs.” Inmates can see visitors from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
Another door led outside to a concrete staircase and down to a small courtyard, surrounded by a tall fence topped with razor wire. Just beyond a gate to the right were several of the white vans that correctional officers use to transport inmates to grass-cutting and brush-clearing duties.
To the left were several small fenced exercise areas, about the size of a large elevator or small bathroom. That, Amey said, is where inmates in segregation—those who are separated from the rest of the inmate population for disciplinary or medical reasons—get their fresh air and exercise. Amey said that people liken these small exercise areas to dog kennels or animal cages. However, he pointed out, “Inmates in segregated recreation have to go outside, but not together. And they’re not free.”
The rest of the inmates go outside together in a blacktop courtyard just off the cafeteria, similar to a school’s, with a basketball goal, a volleyball net, and pull-up bars. Some inmates walk around the yard; others sit on tables and chat. Just beyond the blacktop is a small softball field, also fenced in. Nelson points out to Amey and Mayfield that the security lights are on in the daytime, a malfunction they have been trying to fix.
15 minutes to eat
Inside, the cafeteria also looks like a school’s. Two wooden drop boxes with slots are attached to the cafeteria wall. One is for outgoing mail; the other is for healthcare requests. “All mail is screened coming in and going out,” Nelson said. “They will try to sneak things in under the lawyer’s name.”
In the kitchen, every surface was immaculate. Nelson said the Department of Health regularly gives the prison kitchen a score of 100. It looks pretty much like any restaurant kitchen—but cleaner. Most of the cooking equipment is decades old. A bathtub-sized steam kettle stands between an old industrial-size gas stove and a large old griddle table. Next to the griddle is a tall industrial oven.
“It’s a 30-year-old kitchen,” Nelson said. “We pretty consistently get a 100 percent score. There’s no bugs because they clean. We have all the labor we need to clean.”
The inmates do all the food prep, cooking, serving, dishwashing, and cleaning. Each dorm gets 15 minutes to eat. Inmates line up at a small window to pick up a plastic tray of food. After they eat, they hand the tray through another small window, where another inmate runs the trays through the dishwasher.
The inmates on grass-cutting detail get sack lunches called “packouts,” Nelson said. The packout includes three sandwiches and fruit. “We’re looking at modifying that. Some of them eat three sandwiches, but I can’t, so that may be cut down to save on bread, save on peanut butter or meat, put in a pack of crackers or something,” he said.
As for breakfast, “There’s no powdered eggs here. It’s the real thing. They eat better here than in any state prison and certainly better than where they came from.”
Mayfield added, “They eat three times a day. Breakfast? Bacon, scrambled eggs, pancakes.”
The inmates on grass-cutting detail also take big Igloo coolers with them. One unauthorized use of those coolers, Nelson said, was to smuggle cell phones into the prison from outside: “They pull the plastic cover off and hide the phones in the foam underneath.” And, he adds, inmates also use the more well-known method for smuggling phones and other items via the “poop chute.” Phones are the biggest contraband item, Nelson said. Weapons, not so much.
When the inmates return from outside, they go through intake and are searched for contraband. New inmates come in this way, too, through the back door. Two inmates stood at attention near three barber chairs.
In the laundry room, outfitted with large commercial machines, two more inmates stood at attention. Uniforms, neatly folded above black work boots, lined a shelf on one wall. A long, narrow walk-in closet held more.
A walk through seg
In the hallway, Nelson asked, “Do you smell cigarettes?” The distinct odor of cigarette smoke hung in the air. Cigarettes are contraband that will get an inmate placed in segregation.
“Female on the hall!” Mayfield shouted. Not a peep could be heard.
Behind another door is a row of several one-person cells, each behind a steel door studded with bolts and with a small locked slot through which meals can be slid. On the hall is a shower; in place of a curtain is a prison door made of steel bars.
When an inmate tries to push the boundaries despite being in “seg,” Nelson calls up GDOC, tells them to take that inmate and send him another one: “We’re getting the ones that need to be in prison, and we’re getting the best ones they have,” he said.
Back on the hall is another small glassed-in room with drink and snack machines and a small bookshelf with a few books. Beyond that room is another small dayroom for new inmate orientation, some visitation, and special programs. That area is going to be a transitional center, where about 25 inmates will be prepared for life on the outside.
The Clayton County Prison is not huge. Several years ago, an additional wing was built onto the original building. Nelson said the addition is “metal” that was finished out. In his office, a large dehumidifier pumps moisture from the air, through a clear rubber tube and into a large garbage can on wheels. The can is almost half-full. He asks Mayfield whether an inmate is available to empty the can and she leaves to find one.
Nelson’s office is like those of most other sheriffs or police chiefs: an executive desk with a computer, plenty of paperwork, family photos, career mementos, racks of challenge coins from other agencies. He points out a photo of one of his sons in a Marine dress uniform. Nelson said the son, who was a gifted artist with terrible handwriting, was struck by the glancing blow of a mortar or missile while serving in Afghanistan. His son was 100% disabled as a result but survived and is running a small business. The strange thing, he said, is that his son can no longer draw, but his handwriting is perfect.
Both Amey and Mayfield have been at the prison for about three decades. Amey came straight from the military, while Mayfield is a civilian who applied for the job.
The biggest problem the prison has had to deal with since the COVID-19 pandemic is the same one plaguing other law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities nationwide: staff shortages. Nelson pointed to an organizational chart on a whiteboard. Because that detail alone is down by nine sworn correctional officers, he said, he was not able to send the inmates sleeping in the dorm out on grass-cutting requests.
Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, the prison had started an intensive job-training program. Inmates were certified in both gas and mechanical forklift driving and in welding, in cooperation with Southern Polytechnic State University. Staff gave them a resume template, wrote inmates’ resumes for their job search on the outside, and presented them with course completion certificates and all the necessary tools of their trade upon parole—helmet, goggles, gloves. Although COVID shut down the program, Nelson said the prison is in the process of restarting classes.
Outside, a sign announces, “This is not a disciplinary camp. We just have discipline.”
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