EDITORIAL: Lack of prison transparency unacceptable

Sep. 24—What are Georgia prisons trying to hide?

What is going on behind prison walls?

Why are people dying behind bars?

The lack of transparency and accountability in the state's prison system is unacceptable and unconscionable.

It's time to come clean.

It is also time for the Georgia General Assembly to stop talking about prison reform and start doing something about it.

Numerous things need to be changed, but at the top of the list is clear, unequivocal language in the Georgia Open Records Act that requires full and complete disclosure of all records including any and all information pertaining to inmate deaths or injuries, all complaints, prison personnel files and all documents related to disciplinary actions.

In one state prison alone — Valdosta State Prison — there have been six inmate deaths this year. It took a blanket open records request to even find out that a single death had occurred.

Essentially, someone would either have to know or at least suspect an inmate had died, know the time frame in which the death occurred and the prison where it happened in order to even begin the process of uncovering deaths occurring inside prison walls.

Requiring all records to be public records, obviously, is not enough.

State legislators must make regular, consistent public disclosure mandatory and easily accessible to the general public.

There is no reliable federal database tracking prison deaths in the U.S. Unbelievably the U.S. Department of Justice said it stopped trying to maintain such records because states under reported incarcerated deaths.

The fact that the DOJ knew the deaths were being under reported should have resulted in greater scrutiny, not in eliminating the reporting mechanism.

A Senate panel probing this issue disclosed this past week at least 341 missing and potentially reportable prison deaths were disclosed on state websites but were not collected by the DOJ in 2021.

At least 649 inmate deaths were reported in a database maintained by a nonprofit civil rights organization but were not a part of any federal tracking.

A prison sentence, even a life sentence, should not be a death sentence.

Are some of these deaths the result of serious medical issues? Perhaps. But that begs the question: Are inmates receiving adequate health care?

Are some of these deaths suicide? Perhaps. But that begs the question: Are inmates being adequately evaluated and monitored?

Are some of these deaths the result of gang activity? Perhaps. But that begs the question: Are violent prisoners running amok and committing murder with impunity?

Are some of these deaths the result of violence by guards? Perhaps we will never know the answer to that question because of the lack of transparency and accountability.

Prison officials in our state have said they are underfunded. The state allocated additional monies this year which should mean more guards, better pay and improved facilities.

All that is good news but does not fix the basic and fundamental problem of just how opaque our prison system has become.

Lawmakers and the governor cannot just encourage more disclosure. It must be codified and the General Assembly must take up this issue in the upcoming legislative session.

It is time to shed a bright light on everything that is going on inside Georgia prisons.

Bad things happen in the dark.