ZACHARY: Veil must be lifted on Georgia prisons

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary 

People are dying in Georgia prisons. 

A lot of people are dying in Georgia prisons and many of them are being murdered by fellow inmates. 

An aggressive investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution indicates that more than 50 inmates in Georgia state prisons have been the victims of homicide in less than two years. 

As we have reported, others have died as the result of suicide, undisclosed illnesses and nebulous causes. 

We are now reporting that a federal grand jury indicted a former Valdosta State Prison officer for a use-of-force incident.

The corrections officer was indicted for being complicit in the beating death of a prisoner Dec. 29, 2018. 

Of course, at the time, the full details around the inmate's death were not disclosed but that's not unusual in Georgia where prison officials are less than forthcoming and the state does little to require transparency. 

In the Valdosta case, the officer stands accused of not reporting the fatal beating to authorities and of trying to get the other two guards to not write up the incident in reports while providing false statements to the FBI.

Of course it is good that all of this has now been disclosed and that there appears to be some measure of accountability. 

It should not, however, take the Federal Bureau of Investigation to uncover what is happening in Georgia prisons, sometimes at the hands of the very guards charged with the safekeeping of inmates. 

What is happening in our prisons is being kept in the dark and bad things always happen in the dark. It is far past time to shine the light on Georgia prisons. 

Georgia lawmakers and the Attorney General must take action and pass legislation requiring greater transparency. In much the same way local law enforcement agencies are required to file and disclose all incident reports — without exception — and include the full narrative about what happens in each of those incidents, prison officials should be forced to comply with similar public disclosure laws. 

In addition, prison video should be declared an open, public record to be released in timely fashion. 

There are a lot of controversies around prison reform but there should be absolutely no controversy or reluctance around prison transparency.

As we have said repeatedly, people with nothing to hide don't hide.

What are prison officials in Georgia hiding? 

A prison sentence must not be a death sentence. 

Jim Zachary is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's director of newsroom training and development and president-emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

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