The state Department of Corrections announced Friday the realignment of Rivers State Prison.

Department of Corrections Assistant Commissioner Brian Owens told The Union-Recorder that the DOC will realign the operations of the 1,100-bed facility into the four other state prisons in Milledgeville, and into any of the seven “Fast Track” housing units that will begin opening in the state within the next month.

Owens said the roughly 275 staff members of Rivers Prison will be offered the opportunity to transition into any of 345 vacancies in the corrections system that are located within a 45-minute commute of Rivers State Prison, which is located just south of Milledgeville on the Central State Hospital campus in Hardwick.

Reacting to the news out of Rivers State, Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley said that this was a close call that should have a smaller effect on the community than he would have initially thought.

“In this case, this is the best thing that could have happened under the circumstances,” he said. “The state will save money by closing an inefficient facility, and the employees will maintain their jobs by moving into other institutions. This is just realignment.”

Bentley said he was under the impression that all of the prison’s 200 security personnel would be able to be absorbed into the four other prison facilities in Baldwin County.

Rivers State Prison Warden Tony Henderson said although no one at the facility was expecting the realignment, the transition will be a positive one for prison staff and inmates.

“As far as the realignment is concerned, anyone in Milledgeville knows that the infrastructure at Rivers State Prison is old,” Henderson said.

The transition makes good business sense, he said, and it will help Georgia taxpayers by housing inmates in more efficient facilities that will provide more safety for the inmates and Georgia residents.

In a press release announcing the realignment, Department of Corrections Commissioner James E. Donald stated how the realignment of Rivers State works into the department’s overall mission.

“Our mission is to protect and serve the public,” Donald said. “Our challenge, however, is to accomplish that mission with minimum expense to the taxpayers. Replacing old, inefficient, staff-intensive infrastructure with modern and far less staff-intensive prison design allows us to address both the mission and the challenge.”

The buildings that house Rivers State Prison were originally intended for Central State Hospital and were constructed in 1937. The facility was converted into a corrections facility in 1981. Currently, the facility houses about 1,100 minimum and medium security inmates.

Some Rivers State inmates will be housed in new “Fast-Track” facilities that will be opening in seven existing prison facilities across the state by February 2009. Three “Fast Track” facilities will open this month at Macon, Dooly and Smith state prisons. The facilities can house 256 inmates with fewer than 25 security personnel, rather than the 40-plus security personnel it takes to secure a similar number of inmates under older facility designs.

“I’ve talked with a few inmates, and some of them are anxious because they don’t know where they’re going,” Henderson said. “For others, it doesn’t affect them at all.”

Owens said the realignment of Rivers State Prison is part of a long-range plan of divesting of some of the corrections system’s less-efficient facilities and absorbing those operations into the state’s larger, more modern facilities.

“This fits in with the department’s larger strategy of having fewer but bigger facilities that operate more efficiently,” Owens said.

The realignment will begin immediately, with lights out at the facility slated for Oct. 1.

Over the next week to 10 days, Owens said administrative staff will be conducting one-on-one interviews with the employees at River State Prison to detail what opportunities exist for transitioning into one of Baldwin’s four other corrections facilities or another nearby DOC facility.

Meanwhile, all Rivers State employees are being given a Frequently Asked Questions form with answers to many of the concerns DOC administrators anticipate employees will be asking. Administration is also reviewing employee files in an attempt to match employees with a job opportunity that best matches their skills, experience and location.

“We want to make sure that we do what’s best for our employees by accommodating them any way we can,” Owens said. “Our employees are too valuable not to take care of.”

There is a desperate need for additional correctional workers across the state, Owens said.

Transitioning employees out of Rivers State Prison will help employees of some of the under-staffed DOC facilities by making facilities safer, allowing employees to take leave, and relieving the need for employees to work overtime hours, DOC Public Affairs Director Joan Heath said.

Warden Henderson, who has been at Rivers State since September 2007, said that he thanked the Rivers State staff for being an extremely professional group that has done a great job in the year he has spent in Milledgeville.

“I told them that I thought they were a professional staff who should have no problem working at any institution in the system,” he said.

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