The following article is an opinion piece.
Corrections Officer Robert Clark was murdered by an inmate at Smith State Prison a week ago on Sunday.
We’ve yet to learn the details of what happened, as official statements by the Georgia Department of Corrections can hardly be considered trustworthy, but one thing is for certain: his death was wholly preventable. And it goes without saying that the death of C.O. Robert Clark falls squarely on the shoulders of Layton Lester, the inmate who GDC says is responsible for stabbing Clark (and another inmate).
But neither of those things should stop the public from holding accountable those who fostered the environment to make this very tragedy possible by turning a blind eye for years.
Anyone who has been watching corrections news, or Georgia news generally, in recent years knows that our state prison system is rife with problems. Be it the short staffing of facilities, the crumbling infrastructure, the poor conditions behind the walls, the federal investigation ongoing by the Department of Justice, the violence among inmates, or the corruption permeating through the staff roster, you would be hard pressed to find someone who has not seen a headline about GDC.
Some facilities fare worse than others when it comes to the above crises, but one facility has made headlines, seemingly more than any other in the last two years, and for a more diverse combination of incidents.
Smith State Prison in Tattnall County.
Activists, family members, retired staff, former inmates, members of the media, and even the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have been sounding the alarm about Smith State Prison.
Week after week, life flight helicopters land in the Warden’s yard across the street from Smith SP, loading up inmate after inmate who is suffering from the injuries of a stabbing or a brutal assault made with a “homemade weapon.” Knives, shanks, pipes, swords…we’ve all seen the pictures – most posted on social media via contraband cell phones. And, of course, the Tahoe-trunk full of weapons collected on the Warden’s property after a deep dive (literally) by the GBI in February of 2023. (GDC has yet to comment on that, however.)
The violence, the siphoning of local resources, and the seemingly outright danger of Smith SP’s existence – a facility built for housing medium security offenders only for it to evolve into a ‘close security’ facility housing some of the state’s most violent inmates – all contributed to the position of Tattnall County residents to vocally and vehemently oppose yet another prison coming to Tattnall County.
The rumors we’ve all heard about the escape attempts, which would truly be the final square on the Smith State Prison Dumpster Fire BINGO card, are only icing on the cake.
And then, of course, there is the death penalty case(s) ongoing right now, following the murder of Bobby Kicklighter in Glennville and Jerry Lee Davis in Jesup, allegedly at the hands of a Smith SP prison inmate, a former Smith SP inmate, two former Smith SP corrections officers, and a handful of others. Both of those deaths occurred in January 2021 and GDC has yet to so much as comment on the ongoing investigation
But they were sure to send plenty of admins to the preliminary court hearings to not-so-discreetly gather the details as testified to by the GBI in court. (Pro-tip: It isn’t discreet when a courtroom has 35 people in it and 30 of them are wearing GDC swag. Also, ‘discreet’ means ‘intentionally unobtrusive’)
But we can’t forget the attacks on staff. Third-degree chemical burns at the hands of inmates. Allegations of sexual harassment and assault. And it remains unclear if more staff have been attacked…or arrested at Smith State Prison. Those numbers are muddy because GDC doesn’t always arrest the wrongdoers who bring contraband into their prisons. They have an entire division dedicated to investigating such acts, but oftentimes, they’re told to stand down and, instead, the corrections officers are allowed to resign and go on with their life.
What also continues on with life is the contraband they helped smuggle into the facilities.
The contraband that ultimately led to the loss of life of Bobby Kickilighter, Jerry Lee Davis, Jessica Gerling,a laundry list of inmates, and now Corrections Officer Robert Clark.
People have called on Governor Brian Kemp, former GDC Commissioner-turned Pardons & Parole member Timothy Ward, current GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver, the entire Board of Corrections (which includes Tattnall County resident Wayne Dasher), state representatives, state senators, and so many more.
All that has been heard is radio silence and now, like the other deaths that have happened on their watch, the proverbial blood is on their hands. There is no defense, there is no justification, there is no excuse. Every single person with the power to do something different but chose not to do that something different…is to blame.
Why? Because the entire purpose of the Department Of Corrections is to 1) keep inmates inside and from committing further acts of violence (against each other, staff, and the general public), and 2) keep them alive. The Georgia Department of Corrections does neither.
Everyone else saw this coming. The number of times people uttered, “It’s only a matter of time before a member of staff is seriously injured or killed” topped the number of cell phones confiscated from GDC facilities in 2022.
But the state agency is so hell bent on controlling the story that it continues to make all the wrong decisions every time a decision can be made.
Why Governor Kemp has chosen not to act is perplexing. Securing correctional facilities isn’t ‘pro-prisoner.’ In fact, it appears to fit his agenda perfectly:
Tough on crime.
Efficient use of tax dollars of the ‘Hardworking Georgians’ he’s always talking about.
Keeping state activities (like prisons) under state control, as opposed to federal intervention.
But for someone who is rumored to be contemplating a run for U.S. Senate in 2026, likely against a candidate who has tirelessly advocated for prison reform no less, Kemp sure has spent a lot of time chained to the dock while all the boats pass by. You’d think if he won’t do it for the moral reasons, he’d do it for the polictical ones.
GDC Administration & the Public Information Officer at GDC
As news spread about the murder of Clark on Sunday (which was reported first on TheGeorgiaVirtue.com), GDC released a statement via Facebook just after lunch. The multi-paragraph release gave the optics of transparency but one key fact was glaringly absent: the name of the facility at which the murder occurred.
Why would GDC leave off the facility name where the officer worked? Is THE LOCATION not a pertinent piece of information?
This is the same administration that chose not to remove, transfer, demote, or terminate former Warden Brian Adams who was at the helm of Smith State Prison when at least two murders-for-hire were executed by inmates at the institution under his tenure. Though details from the GBI trickled out slowly, only a moron would presume that GDC wasn’t made aware of what was happening with the GBI. It wasn’t until the GBI took out warrants for Adams’ arrest, based on allegations of corruption and working with inmates, that the agency decided to remove Adams from his position.
And then, even then, GDC wanted to control the narrative by firing Adams first – before his actual arrest – so that the press release could say ‘Former Warden.’ Once again, the official story was more important than the official facts.
Board of Corrections
The entity is completely useless and functions more like a Class B fraternity than it does a governing board. Most of the members have no knowledge or background in corrections and they are led by the GDC Commissioner, who, prior to being appointed by Kemp, also had no corrections background. It’s the blind leading the blind.
Some of the Staff
The current staff at GDC right now seems to be divided into two very distinct categories.
The first group is staff (and former staff) who desperately want change, staff who have been beaten down by the way the system works, and those who very clearly see the flaws in the way the state agency is working. These staff members need their job (or retirement or health insurance) but are actively looking elsewhere because they fear for their safety or they’re overwhelmed by the bureaucratic red tape.
The second is ‘company men’ (and women) who are angry about the bad press, who will go down with the ship, and will be remembered for their heroic acts of rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic that is the Georgia Department of Corrections.
The age-old question that seems to be thrown in the face of every GDC critic is ‘Well, what do you suppose should be done differently?’ Or, my personal favorite, “Until you’ve worked there, you’re not really qualified to offer those criticisms.
But the situation is far too dire and we’re way past that. To be blunt, only an idiot would continue doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result. Yet, here we are, watching the GDC recycle the same wardens, the same protocols, the same recruitment strategies, the same investigative standards, the same brass administrators.
I’m not sure what that says about the people who pledge their unwavering support for GDC but all of it is insulting to the inmates, the staff, the taxpayers, and the families of the victims.
Too much blood has been shed at and because of Smith State Prison.
The answer to the question “What should be done differently?” at this point is ‘anything.’ Anything at all.