The mother of Dontavius Mintz says her son had been dead in his cell for days when the smell finally caught the eye. Guards at the Ware State Prison in Georgia are believed to regularly check on the people in the hole. Of course, they have to do a lot of things that they don’t do now.
That’s the message Mintz was trying to tell people outside the prison. Mintz, a 24-year-old serving a life sentence, worked with a prison reform activist group, the Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia. In letters and phone calls, Mintz had described the deteriorating condition of the South Georgia prison, the shortage of guards, the increasingly inedible food, the extreme restrictions on movement and more, said Brian Randolph, a spokesman for the coalition.
And then Mintz was found dead last week.
His mother, Nerissa Wright, said people incarcerated first told her that Mintz was found face down and that blood was coming from his mouth and nose. A few hours later, she said, prison staff called with the same message, but added that the cause of his death was undetermined and that it would be weeks before a toxicology examination would come back and a ruling on the cause would be made. No explanation was given to Wright about the staff shortage that would have left her son unsupervised for days, she said.
“[The warden] said he didn’t have much information for me and that I can call the coroner’s office,” Wright said. (A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Corrections told The Intercept in a statement, “While the details of the death are still under investigation, documents show rounds were being made.”)
What is clear is that the prison system in Georgia is broken, even by our country’s backward standards. According to Randolph figures, 19 people were murdered in a Georgia state prison on August 22 this year. The cause of another 24 deaths remains undetermined, but undetermined deaths are almost always classified as homicides later, Randolph said. “There will have to be some kind of federal intervention. No one is willing to fix it. And I’m starting to wonder if, you know, they threw their hands in the air and just said, ‘Maybe somebody can take over and fix it,’ he said.
In 2017, the Georgia Department of Corrections reported four murders. Last year it reported 26.
Fewer guards make it harder to monitor interpersonal issues between people in prison — and more dangerous to intervene. Those circumstances lead to stabbings like those captured on video by people incarcerated at Ware State Prison earlier this year, in which a screaming and singing group teamed up on an incarcerated person for a brutal beating.
Without staff to watch incarcerated people, the inmates often spend weeks in their cells. This approach turns Georgia’s prisons into a murder factory.
Guarding the prisoners was not a particularly attractive job before the pandemic. Widespread labor shortages have turned the starting wage of $16.50 an hour for a Georgia correctional officer into a 44 percent turnover rate with hundreds of unfilled jobs. While some guards leave, others look at the circumstances — and the risks — and leave as well, triggering a cascade of attrition. Prisons across the state now operate with only a quarter of the necessary staff. In some cases, a single guard may be left to keep an eye on dozens of people.
On August 11, the one-year anniversary of Ware State Prison’s latest riots, a food dispute led to two correctional officers being stabbed by a person incarcerated. One of the guards, Julian Rector, is still in a coma.
That same day, Jamari Charell McClinton, an incarcerated person from Decatur, was stabbed to death by another person imprisoned at Baldwin State Prison.
After the Baldwin State murder, police and correctional department staff questioned people who were being held in prison. One of them apparently described the attack and named the perpetrators. Then, instead of separating that person, he was returned to a shared cell.
That witness, Badarius Clark, was murdered last week. The police arrested his cellmate for the crime.
“You don’t put him in any kind of protective custody or anything. You put him in a room with a roommate,” Randolph of the Human and Civil Rights Coalition said. “You know, right now…it’s starting to look like the negligence is just intentional.”
The federal prison system doesn’t fare much better in Georgia. Administrators emptied Atlanta’s federal prison a few weeks ago after an internal investigation revealed massive corruption within the ranks.
But the Georgia Department of Corrections responds even more astonishingly. Questions, if answered at all, take days for short answers. The families of those who have lost loved ones say they get less response than that.
“They’ve been very evasive with me,” said Jennifer Bradley, whose son Carrington Frye was murdered by a cellmate last year. “[Georgia Department of Corrections] Commissioner [Timothy] Ward was insensitive. He ended the conversation abruptly, doing everything but hanging up in my face. His only concern was how I got his number.”
Bradley described her son ‘laying 30 to 40 minutes waiting for them to come help him, and they didn’t. They had one guard who kept an eye on all those prisoners.” The cameras were smeared with petroleum jelly, blinding the waiting room, she said. “He was doomed.”