Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jun 2003
Source: Augusta Chronicle, The (GA)
Copyright: 2003 The Augusta Chronicle
Note: Does not publishing letters from outside of the immediate Georgia and 
South Carolina circulation area
Author: Doug Gross,   | Morris News Service


ATLANTA - In Georgia, more than 200,000 people are either in the custody of 
the Department of Corrections or under its supervision.

The state has led the nation in prison population growth for three of the 
past four years, and its inmate population - about 47,000 - is now higher 
than the number of students enrolled in the University of Georgia, Georgia 
Southern University and the Medical College of Georgia combined.

But despite its constant growth, which is predicted to swell further thanks 
in part to Georgia's "two strikes, you're out" law for violent felons, the 
state's prison system had its budget slashed by millions of dollars by the 
General Assembly this year.

The result? Closed facilities, delayed plans for new prisons and 
belt-tightening that has included laying off chaplains, librarians and 
counselors and deleting more than 500 currently vacant jobs.

Prison officials say they'll be able to soldier on despite the cuts - at 
least for now. But some advocates fear the cuts could lead to a more 
dangerous life for inmates, guards and, ultimately, regular citizens.

About $30 million was cut from this year's original budget of $957 million, 
as lawmakers struggled to make up for a nearly $700 million state deficit 
brought on by dwindling tax receipts.

The system's 2004 budget is $916 million, $41 million less than this year's.

That's roughly the same as 2001, when the system incarcerated 2,000 fewer 
inmates than it does now.

"'Cut. Cut. Cut' is what we hear," said acting Assistant Commissioner Alan 
Adams. "But one thing we are not going to cut is the margin of safety, for 
the offenders and the staff."

Officials admit that prison crowding is becoming a concern. Currently, 
nearly 98 percent of Georgia's prison beds are full, with about 1,000 new 
inmates expected in the next year.

But six new facilities planned to be built this year - from Long County to 
Rome, in northwest Georgia - were delayed because of the budget crunch. 
Also, a handful of existing centers were shut down, including the Savannah 
Women's Transition Center.

The 74 women housed at that site will be moved to a new center in Atlanta.

"We think we're in pretty good shape for about a year," said Brian Owens, 
the executive assistant to the commissioner. "(But) after a year, that 
might be a different story.

"The bottom line is that we're going to have to start building new prisons 
in this state or doing something new with sentencing."

PRISON EXPERTS SAY overcrowding - which Georgia does not yet face - leads 
to increased violence and escape attempts, higher risk of diseases 
spreading and much higher levels of stress on guards and other prison 

"As we see this increased overcrowding - we really need to start looking at 
other ways of dealing with crime and criminals in our society," said Sara 
Totonchi, the public policy coordinator with the Southern Center for Human 
Rights in Atlanta.

Ms. Totonchi, who works with inmates and their families, said expanding 
programs such as day treatment centers, community service and drug courts 
would benefit both nonviolent offenders - who usually become more dangerous 
after going to prison, she said - and the state.

"I think the public is becoming less inclined toward the 
'build-more-prisons' angle and, especially with the budget problems, 
becoming more smart on crime rather than just tough on crime," she said.

Ms. Totonchi said the top concern her center hears from inmates and their 
families is about prison health care. More than 15 percent of the 
department's budget goes to medical care of inmates - a pot of money that 
has seen its share of cuts in the past two years.

"With issues like hepatitis, HIV and, even in some places, tuberculosis, it 
presents a real public health issue," Ms. Totonchi said. "With some of 
these illnesses it's going to not only impact the inmates, but also the 
guards who come and go in the prison and come into contact with their 
families and their communities."

The department, like many in state government, has a hiring freeze in place.

A six-week substance abuse prevention program and a distance-learning 
program to help inmates get their high school equivalency degrees were cut 
- - although Mr. Adams said the drug program was axed in favor of a more 
effective one and that no fewer inmates will be able to work toward their 

As of July 1, 23 part-time counselors and 39 recreation directors will be 
eliminated, all librarians who earn hourly pay will be gone, and the budget 
for paid chaplains will be slashed by $1.5 million.

"'Cut. Cut. Cut' is what we hear ... But one thing we are not going to cut 
is the margin of safety, for the offenders and the staff." - Alan Adams, 
acting assistant commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections
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