Danger zone at the Atlanta Detention Center

Guards complain about short staffing, low pay and scary incidents

Sgt. Ellis Williams carries the scars of his profession.

His fingers are gnarled because they've all been broken at one time or another. He walks with a slight limp because a prisoner he was guarding caved in his knee by kicking him with steel-toed shoes. He carries a visible remnant from the time a prisoner slashed his throat with a shank that contained a razor blade.

"Being a corrections officer is the most dangerous beat that any police can have," says Williams, a 27-year veteran of the city's Department of Corrections. "You don't have any equipment: no batons, no stun guns, no pepper spray. You have to use verbal judo."

He admits there are unavoidable hazards to being a corrections officer at the Atlanta City Detention Center. But Williams – who heads the union that represents the guards – contends that attrition and a recent decision to cut back on overtime has thinned the ranks so badly that the officers now work in unsafe conditions.

Williams points to five incidents over the past month that have raised concerns. In one, a guard went to break up a fight in one of the housing units of the detention center in downtown Atlanta. The inmates surrounded him and took his radio so he couldn't call for help. He was trapped for seven minutes before another guard rescued him. In another, an inmate charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery was able to escape from Grady Hospital because the officer sent to guard him was unfamiliar with the hospital's layout.

On Dec. 29, two female officers allegedly were attacked by inmates during lunch. According to Williams, two inmates tried to drag one of the guards, Wanda Evans, inside their cell as they punched her. Evans confirmed the account to CL, but wouldn't comment further because the incident is under police investigation.

Reports of the incidents come amid rising tensions between the union and Chief Frank Sizer, who was appointed last March to oversee the center. "The situation has become a nightmare for us," Williams says. "Sizer is unapproachable."

Before coming to Atlanta, Sizer led the state Division of Corrections in Maryland. According to the Washington Post, he "retired abruptly" after a series of violent incidents, including the deaths of two corrections officers and three inmates.

The prison violence under Sizer's watch became an issue in the 2006 Maryland governor's race. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley – who won the election – said the state had a "mismanaged" prison system. "The warnings that so many corrections officers gave have gone unheeded," O'Malley said. "They're short-staffed ... and that's got to change."

The union protested Sizer's appointment when City Council met to consider his confirmation. "He was more than qualified from his résumé," says Councilman H. Lamar Willis, who sits on the Public Safety Committee. "They brought out that there were deaths on his watch in Baltimore. The chief did a fairly good job explaining to us what happened, that it had a lot to do with the age of the facilities. Clearly there were people in the chain of command more responsible than he was. We became comfortable with that."

As the city has faced financial challenges, Sizer cut the department's overtime from $2.9 million in 2006's fiscal year to $681,000 in the current fiscal year.

Sizer said the cut was necessary: "Overtime flowed freely before I arrived. We're trying to manage it efficiently and within the budget."

At the same time, 70 guards have left the department over the past 12 months, according to city records. That's led to strains on the officers who are left, according to Williams. One guard often is assigned to oversee up to 72 inmates, he says. After that, an additional guard is supposed to be assigned. But, according to the union, that doesn't always happen because staff isn't available.

Sizer says he's working diligently to fill 35 vacancies and that he's comfortable with the overall staffing level. "I've been in this business for 35 years, and I have never worked anywhere where the staff didn't feel they were short-staffed," he says. He blames staffing problems on a large number of guards who take sick leave or go out on family leave.

The detention center typically houses around 1,000 inmates who are awaiting trial. They include people held on federal charges and suspects arrested by Atlanta, MARTA and college law enforcement, as well as overflow inmates from the Fulton County Jail. The correction officers transport inmates to court and guard prisoners who are taken to Grady Hospital for treatment.

"They're getting the worst inmates from Fulton County, and it's a real problem there," says Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, the organization that successfully sued over conditions at the county jail. "People are unhappy at the detention center and I'm hearing they're short-staffed."

Greg Giornelli, the city's chief operating officer, wouldn't comment on the concerns voiced by the union, but referred to a letter he wrote to the union on Jan. 4 following the fourth of a series of meetings between the administration, the council's Public Safety Committee and the guards.

In that letter, Giornelli said he's confident the jail meets national safety standards. However, he did order a "safety audit" to be conducted by an outside agency and agreed to implement any recommendations the audit contains.

Giornelli disputes that the jail is understaffed; he says the department had 382 sworn officers in July, compared with 344 at the same point in 2005. "The relevant numbers show that we had more sworn officers in 2007 than any time in the past three years," he wrote.

Williams says those numbers don't reflect the officers who have left since July, and that the shortage is compounded because overtime is no longer allowed. In addition, the officers have received only cost-of-living raises in the past seven years, while other public safety departments have received raises. The officers are so frustrated, he says, that about 50 walked out of a meeting earlier this month with city officials.

"Just like police officers, we have to be trained and certified," Williams says. "But we're treated like step kids. I can't see how the council and the administration can continue that insult."

Both Williams and Willis say part of the problem is that police and fire officers are visible, while the prison guards are out of sight and out of mind. "The city has serious issues with water, sewer and public safety," Willis says. "It doesn't come cheap. We've frankly taken the position of ignoring Corrections."