Inmates fear safety after cell phone video shows shocking conditions inside GA prisons

ATLANTA — There is a prison where the inmates can unlock their cell doors at will and where drugs, phones and weapons are everywhere.

It’s so dangerous that federal prosecutors are now investigating conditions at all of Georgia’s prisons.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray has obtained shocking videos from inside one Georgia prison that appears to show that especially after dark it’s the prisoners running things.

“Yeah man, no help, nobody in control man,” said an unidentified inmate on smuggled cell phone video.

Prisoners said the smoke seen in the video is from an inmate setting himself on fire inside his cell.

“Started to smell smoke coming up from my floor,” said Arias Holland, a former inmate at Georgia State Prison who was there when the fire broke out.

Like many of the prisoners there he knew how to unlock his and other cell doors and said that came in handy when guards did not initially respond to the fire.

“There’s people in there, they can’t get out. They can’t breathe. They at the door, there’s no help. I ended up having to pop the lock on the door,” Holland said.

From the contraband cell phone that captured it, to the prisoners who can lock and unlock doors, to the inmate who was badly burned, the video gives a peek at the problems happening behind the walls of Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.

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“They have phones, they have knives, they have crystal meth, they have weed,” said Jaron Harris, the mother of a former inmate there.

“Oh my god, he over there killing a man,” said an unidentified inmate in another contraband cell phone video that shows a man stabbed to death by his cellmate.

“The places don’t have security. No security. We never see anybody. They only count one time a day,” Holland said.

Channel 2 receives calls and emails with complaints about prison and jail conditions almost every day and doesn’t cover most of them. But the concerns from Georgia State Prison got our attention.

It’s a matter of life and death safety for prisoners and guards.

“He says, ‘Momma, when I sleep in there I sleep with my feet at the door.’ I said, ‘Why?’ ‘So, if they move, I can feel it,’” Harris said.

“If people who are incarcerated inside a facility and are willing to do harm, know how to open the cells, then nighttime is basically immunity,” State Rep. Josh McLaurin from DeKalb County said.

McLaurin said most of the inmates in Georgia prisons will be back in our communities and neighborhoods and so what happens behind bars affects all of us on the outside.

“As people who are funding this, we should be alarmed we are paying people to be treated this way,” McLaurin said.

“He was so full of life and to receive a phone call saying my child would kill himself, it’s unreal,” said Sophia Smith.

Her son, Dillian Southall, was found dead in his cell at Georgia State Prison just four months before the end of his sentence and before coming home to his young son.

“Do you think if that prison was run correctly Dillian would still be alive?” Gray asked Smith.

“I think Dillian would still be here. I think his life would be saved,” Smith said.

The U.S. Justice Department has taken notice too, announcing this fall that it is launching an investigation into conditions at Georgia prisons.

Channel 2 asked the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections for an on-camera interview and to allow our cameras inside Georgia State Prison.

But the Department of Corrections said it can’t comment because of the Justice Department investigation.

It released a statement, saying:

“The GDC is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and denies that it has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence.”

Harris said she worried every minute of every day about the safety of her 21-year-old son who entered prison at just age 17 while he was at Reidsville.

“Now I sleep with the phone under my head. I shower with my phone. I take it everywhere in case somebody calls about my son,” Harris said.

McLaurin said there is a bill being written in the state house that would create an ombudsmen position that has the power to enter and assess state prisons.

There is also a mental health part to the story.

Channel 2 is investigating claims of patients denied their medications for mental illnesses and the dangerous impact that can also have on them.

You can watch that part of the investigation on Channel 2 Action News at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

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