by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:ATLANTA —
Armed robbers, rapists, even murderers: they're supposed to be locked up in Georgia prisons, but a Channel 2 Action News investigation found many of them living in transition centers instead, coming and going just feet from local neighborhoods.
The state Department of Corrections said the idea is to help prisoners transition back into society. There are more than a dozen of these centers around the state, many in industrial areas or near airports, but a Channel 2 investigation found one in an Atlanta neighborhood and the homeowners had no idea about their violent neighbors until they were told.
"Oh my God! This is shocking" said Hanon Prescott, looking at the list of crimes attributed to prisoners living just two blocks from his midtown Atlanta home.
He and his neighbors knew the transitional center housed criminals, but did not know their crimes.
"Twenty-two murderers? This is in there now?" asked Prescott.
A review of public records revealed at least 22 murderers, seven armed robbers, two rapists and two kidnappers living in the center as of last week.
"That's unsettling, because I have two girls," said neighbor Chinyere Hardy.
Most prisoners at Atlanta's Transitional Center are allowed to leave during the day for work, but have to return every night. State policy says they “must not be serving a life sentence for a violent or heinous crime, which may result in adverse community reaction.”
But the investigation found the state doesn't always follow its own rules.
When the parole board recommends a prisoner for the transition center, the Department of Corrections usually listens. Unless a life sentence specifies 'without parole,' an inmate could end up living in a transition center.
For weeks, a Department of Corrections spokesman denied Channel 2’s request for an interview. However, there is an explanation posted on YouTube.
"Only carefully screened inmates near the end of their sentence are chosen to enter the work release programs," says the video posted by Georgia's Department of Corrections.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation revealed 90 inmates with life sentences living in transitional centers across Georgia. Atlanta has more than any other, despite being located just feet from homes.
"I guess I'm just surprised that that facility would house violent criminals so close to a neighborhood with families and children," said Hardy.
Georgia Dzurica served on a grand jury that indicted an escapee from the Atlanta center.
"I thought it was probably a first, because I've never heard any talk about it," said Dzurica.
There have been 65 escapes at the Atlanta facility, which is walking distance from her home.
"That does not thrill me," said Dzurica.
Channel 2 researched every escape in the past five years and found more than 500 of them were from transitional centers, including four murderers.
The executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, Douglas Ammar, said most inmates in transitional centers do follow the rules.
"The term 'escape' can be misleading. So an escape, and I've seen this, we've had cases where some just didn't come back on time," said Ammar, adding that part of their work release at the transitional center pays for their stay.
"It costs less money and it really helps people to turn folks from being a tax burden to a taxpayer," said Ammar. "If you don't have transition centers, a lot of folks don't have a way to move into the world on their own."
But with minimal security, including unlocked doors and no fences, an inmate can simply walk away.
Gary McCall escaped from a transitional center in Clayton County in 2010. He carjacked and robbed someone before officers found him.
Still, these neighbors don't mind the idea of a transitional center, as long the state follows its own rules about who can live there.
"It makes you feel like they're hiding information from us as residents. They're a public facility, so it seems to me they should let us know," said Hardy.
On the Georgia Department of Corrections website, you can search by facility, including transitional centers, to see who lives there, and which crimes they committed. Channel 2 did have to file an open records request to see the data about the escapes.
A Department of Corrections spokesman said anyone who's in there with a life sentence had to have been recommended first by the state parole board. A spokesman for Georgia Pardons and Paroles had no comment.