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No Relief In Sight For Georgia Prison Overcrowding

January 16, 1989

ATLANTA (AP) _ Every week Georgia sets a record for overcrowding in its prisons, but officials say little relief is in sight despite three recent outbreaks of violence in packed cellblocks.

New prisoner totals are tallied each Friday by the state Department of Corrections. As of Friday, 18,780 inmates were in the system - 43 percent over capacity.

″We’ve set a new record every week since the first quarter of 1988,″ said department spokeswoman Kathy Drake. ″We’re not expecting to appreciably reduce the problem this year.″

Riots erupted this month at overcrowded Milledgeville prisons, both of which were originally designed to be wards for mental patients at Central State Hospital.

In December, prisoners in Hall County rioted at a jail packed with twice as many inmates as it was intended to hold, many of them state offenders assigned there because state prisons are full.

Corrections Commissioner David Evans in a recent speech said it’s easy to cite reasons for overcrowding but difficult to do anything about it.

″We’ve just got to address the question: Who do we want in prison? Because it’s going to be an expensive operation,″ he said.

Gov. Joe Frank Harris last week asked the Legislature for $342 million in 1990 for corrections, rejecting the Department of Corrections’ request for $144 million for six new prisons. The 1990 budget request is an increase of $31 million over 1989.

″We’re real disappointed,″ said Ms. Drake. ″We believe the need is there, and the need is critical with the present jail backlog.″

Harris pointed out that five new prisons and eight probation detention centers are scheduled to open in Georgia within 18 months, with space for 3,000 prisoners. But that would make only a modest dent in the overcrowding problem.

State Rep. Carlton Colwell, a member of the House State Institutions and Property Committee, said he expected the governor’s 1990 request to be modified, likely with more money aimed at creating more space for prisoners.

″I think we’re going to have to come up with something to get more bed space,″ Colwell said. ″I think we’re going to have to plan on building again this year, just like we have to every year.″

For local jails, Colwell said legislation is in the works to provide money that counties could use to build space for prisoners they house for the state. Such facilities would be adjacent to county jails but would separate state inmates from local prisoners, often an explosive mix.

″We’re trying to get the ones (counties) that have the severe problems,″ he said. ″We’re trying to identify them and start a pilot program. This would help them get out from under the overcrowding.″

Hall County Sheriff Dick Mecum said such a plan, which he supports, would be a stopgap measure at best. The roots of prison overcrowding - sentencing patterns, work release programs, high levels of urban crime - remain to be solved, he said.

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