ATLANTA — On a sultry July day, a black-clad riot squad stormed into Hays State Prison in northwest Georgia in search of contraband - anything from drugs to weapons to out-of-place personal items.
By the time the raid was over, 24 inmates had been injured, some severely.
That's what is known. What remains unclear is exactly how the prisoners were hurt during the 1996 search.
Now a federal suit filed by inmates is bringing out allegations that high-ranking guards violated prisoners' civil rights by attacking them with no provocation.
Prison officials say they did use force, but that it was nothing uncalled for when dealing with some of the state's most violent criminals.
But as dramatic allegations about the raid emerge, they are sparking a public debate about how far prison officials can go to keep order. The debate is all the more important because it is centered in the South, the region that has led the nation in get-tough prison policies, such as chain gangs and surprise "shakedowns" like the one at Hays.
"There are people who now really believe" that abuse happened, says John Cole Vodicka, director of the Prison and Jail Project in Americus, Ga., a group that has been receiving complaints of abuse from prisoners for more than a year. Depositions taken for the federal case "slapped a good segment of the public awake," he says.
Raid may set national standard
The trial, scheduled for early next year, is expected to be closely watched across the nation as prison systems struggle to draw the line between restricting prisoners' privileges and violating their rights.
"What is happening in Georgia is worse than what's happening in rest of the country, but very much part of a trend," says Jenni Gainsborough, of the American Civil Liberties Union's Prison Project in Washington. "The same thing is happening all over. And it all has one goal: to make life miserable for prisoners."
This trend could slow, prisoner advocates say, if public outrage grows in Georgia over the increasingly high-profile Hays case. If Georgians fail to express outrage, however, the raid could bolster the growing feeling that tough policies are an acceptable way to treat prisoners.
The story of the Hays State Prison raid began in 1995, when Georgia's Gov. Zell Miller (D) was running for reelection. He took the tough-on-crime attitude then sweeping the country to a new level when he announced a "two strikes and you're out" plan for Georgia's criminals. He then pushed out the prison commissioner and appointed Wayne Garner, a former funeral home director who was serving on the state's parole board.
It was clear from the outset that, on Mr. Garner's watch, Georgia's prisons would adhere to the publicly popular sentiment that inmates serve hard time rather than be coddled by the state.
New policies changed every aspect of prison life. Weight-lifting equipment was removed from prisons and replaced with a four-mile daily walk. Prisoners were required to work eight-hour days, and educational programs were scaled back. Holiday furlough privileges were ended. Stricter discipline regimes were imposed. And the new, SWAT-team style shakedowns began.
Prison officials say the policies have been effective, reducing violence among prisoners and cutting the number of escapees in half. But prisoner-rights supporters say the policies create an atmosphere of intimidation in which the potential for abuse is strong.
Appealing to courts
Three federal lawsuits alleging prisoner abuse are currently pending in Georgia.
The largest stems from the Hays shakedown. In it, some 15 prison employees, including the lieutenant in charge of riot squads, have reportedly testified under oath that excessive force was used.
Prison officials say it is too early to draw any conclusions. "While in some instances reports coming from early preparation of the lawsuits seem terrible, there is still much more to come out as both sides prepare for the allegations," says Mike Light, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.
Ironically, it will be prison employees that change Georgia's prison policies if anyone does, observers say.
Today, they are swaying public sentiment with their testimony. In the future, they may begin to lobby the governor and Legislature for changes.
"They're working in an environment that's so tense, it's not safe for anyone anymore, says Mr. Cole Vodicka. "Garner will go when employees start saying, 'We can't work in this atmosphere any- more.' "