New (old) warden; "I'm at Hays until we get things fixed"
CHATTOOGA COUNTY, GA. (WRCB) -- For Melinda Latta, the series of crises the past eight weeks recalls a stretch four and a half years ago, when Hays State Prison was anything but a comfortable neighbor.
"For those two weeks I had to look out and make sure nobody was lurking around my house," she says.
Two inmates broke out in October 2008. One, Johnny Mack Brown, burglarized a home and forced Kellie Durden to drive him to Northeast Georgia.
"Maybe a quarter-mile from my house," Latta explains.
Brown was captured one month later, and sentenced to life without parole for kidnapping.
"I don't think I would have considered moving," Latta says. "But it concerns me that I might not hear about an escape in the future."
Hays' interim warden, Rick Jacobs, says she should have no such concerns. Georgia's Department of Corrections returned Jacobs to Hays Wednesday after removing his successor, Clay Tatum.
Four inmates had been murdered on Tatum's watch since December 19.
Derrick Stubbs, 25, died after other inmates beat him.
Damion MacClain, 27, was strangled December 26.
Nathaniel Reynolds, 31, died in ambush January 18.
And Pippa Hall-Jackson, 19, died Tuesday, when another inmate stabbed him in the chest at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison's transfer yard in Jackson.
"We are continuing in a lockdown mode," Jacobs tells Eyewitness News via phone Thursday afternoon. "That means all the cells are locked, and the inmates can't go anywhere."
Jacobs was warden at Hays from 2009-2010, when GDOC Commissioner Brian Owens appointed him as system-wide Field Operations Manager.
"I'm the warden at Hays until we get things fixed, to the Commissioner's satisfaction," Jacobs says.
He's cited the lockdown as the reason he conducted our interview via telephone rather than on-camera.
"We're making changes even as I'm speaking," he says. "We can't compromise the facility."
By mid-afternoon Thursday, Jacobs already had met with both shifts of corrections officers and supervisors, to apprise them of changes and of a review in policies and procedures.
"We're dealing with more of the more dangerous inmates than when I left," Jacobs explains. "Georgia's sentencing guidelines are putting younger men in here, and they're serving longer."
He doesn't have to look beyond Hays' Facebook page to find officers sounding off about the situation there.
A poster identifying himself as Chuck Wheat, a three-year veteran of Hays, vented after inmates attacked three fellow officers January 27.
"We take the risk, and Corrections turns a deaf ear to the warnings," he writes. "Two officers stabbed this morning, and a third beat (sic) with broomsticks during a lock-down count."
"They were supposed to be in their cells... but, since door locks don't work (who woulda thunk it?) A prison without locking cell doors? Sounds like a hotel. They (the guards) got jumped. How long have we dealt with this bull (expletive)."
Jacobs hasn't addressed that posting directly, nor has he stated whether he believes human errors or mechanical failures led to the locking issues referenced.
"But I can tell you as of this past Friday, every cell door in Hays State Prison was fitted with a control mechanism that has not been, in any way, compromised."
Jacobs also maintains that Hays has enough correctional officers to staff every shift safely and securely, and that overtime is mandatory only if an assigned officer is absent.
"But we are hiring," he says.
Signs went up shortly after he replaced Tatum Wednesday. Tatum will be 'reassigned.'
Starting pay for Corrections Officers is $26,000 annually, Jacobs says. Background screening and training take about eight weeks.
"I feel for his job," Latta says.
So do Georgia lawmakers.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) has praised Jacobs' appointment as a "step in the right direction, but not a final solution."
"Before we can engage in open and honest conversations about how Hays State Prison moves forward, we must let state officials conduct a thorough investigation that analyzes all current security procedures and protocols," according to a news release from the Georgia Senate Press Office Thursday afternoon.
Latta questions whether the Department of Corrections enables its officers and supervisors to utilize the existing manpower and technology correctly.
"Because I don't think you can fix evil," she says. "And that's basically what he (Warden Jacobs) is watching."