Monday, November 30, 2009

South Georgia Prison is safe despite recent attacks

Down in Valdosta, Prison officials maintain that conditions are safe for employees and inmates at Valdosta State Prison, despite recent reports of violent attacks.

The Times recently met with Valdosta State Prison Warden William Danforth and other officials from the Georgia Department of Corrections and Valdosta State Prison to discuss various violent incidents against correctional officers and inmates. Georgia Senator Tim Golden, D-Valdosta, and Representatives Jay Shaw, D-Lakeland, Ellis Black, D-Valdosta, and Amy Carter, D-Valdosta also attended.

During the meeting, prison officials asserted that the recent attack on Officer Zebedee Hankerson was not a common occurrence at the prison.

“The incidents that have happened to staff are unfortunate, but it is an inherit risk you take with this job,” said Department of Corrections Assistant Commissioner Derrick Schofield. “And sometimes we are

cautious to release everything to the public about inmate or officer attacks to ensure the safety of the inmate inside the prison, as well as outside family members.”

Danforth added that VSP has the hardest working staff and the majority of the officers are from the local community. He said that the officers seem to be happy with the working conditions and the turnover rate has actually dropped in the last year.

The prison currently has 315 correctional officers, 34 supervisors and four administrators.

Excluding those at the Valdosta Annex and Transition Center, there are 972 inmates at VSP. Of those inmates, 245 are serving life sentences and 50 are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Although there is a full page of identified gangs at VSP, the facility has a stratification plan overseen by a security threat group (STG) coordinator. The STG coordinator looks for indicators that a person may be in gang, and after validating a gang member, strives to separate that inmate from potential rivals.

There are 10 major housing units, with three buildings for the mental health population.

“We actually have one of the largest mental health services in the state,” Danforth said. “There are approximately 280 Level 3 mental health inmates and they are placed in supportive living units.”

Officials admitted that these factors can contribute to more violence at the prison. Nonetheless, they affirmed that officer presence has been a successful method of deterring such incidents.

After a tour of the prison, attendees at the meeting discussed ways to improve the lines of communication between the Department of Corrections and the media.

Rep. Ellis Black also emphasized the toll that the state’s across-the-board budget cuts have taken on the prisons, as well as other state departments.

Outrage about violence at the prison stems from the Oct. 25 attack of 19-year-old officer Zebedee Hankerson, who was beaten by at least three inmates while on duty at the prison. Hankerson’s brutal attack left him in need of surgery on his face and one of his eyes.

Malynda Fulton of Valdosta Daily Times Reports.

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