This article is part of an ongoing series with regard to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
AllOnGeorgia filed an Open Records Request in early June with regard to various operational protocols at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia. The Tattnall County prison is a maximum security – though the GA DOC website lists it as “special mission” – all-male facility and is one of the state’s forty prisons. The maximum capacity of the prison is 1,530 inmates. Georgia State Prison used to be home to the state’s electric chair before it was moved to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, Georgia.
In the request, AllOnGeorgia asked for documentation relating to the deaths of inmates from June 1, 2014 to June 1, 2016. The Georgia DOC fulfilled the request and noted that 24 inmates have died at Georgia State Prison in a 24 month period. The Open Records Request (ORR) asked for the cause of death to be listed and the DOC provided three ways a person can die in prison: natural causes, suicide, and unknown.
Of the deaths listed, 14 of the inmates died of natural causes, 4 were suicides, and 6 were UNKNOWN.
Unfortunately, following the death of an inmate, while their status is still listed as “inactive,” their information is removed from the Georgia Department of Corrections inmate search engine. It appears that only formerly incarcerated but still living persons remain in the database. Because of that, there is no way to cross check the information and verify age or any other characteristics with regard to the natural causes rulings and HIPPA laws bar any further investigation of what specifically resulted in the natural cause of death.
It is worth noting that ‘death by natural causes’ simply means the death was recorded by coroners and on death certificates and associated documents, as being primarily attributed to an illness or an internal malfunction of the body not directly influenced by external forces. This doesn’t mean something related to the living conditions, complications from a previous fight within the facility, an illness contracted inside prison walls, or anything else could not be the cause of death. It excludes documentation of any sort of responsibility on the part of the Georgia Department of Corrections in allowing a broad generalization. Instead, the explanation simply means the death was not reported to be self-inflicted or one caused by another person.
This leaves many questions:
- How does the Georgia Department of Corrections detect signs of suicidal tendencies ahead of a suicide? At what point are these people put in a psychiatric health ward? If an inmate has a cell mate, how can the prison rule out a staged suicide?
- Who, at the state level, oversees the information provided by each individual prison? Who verifies information is correct?
- Without definitive answers of causes of death, how can the Georgia Department of Corrections work to improve conditions and reduce the number of preventable deaths?
Much of this information is shielded by the veil of secrecy within the Georgia Department of Corrections.