'This is crazy. Somebody dead.' Inmate body underscores staffing woes in Georgia prison system

This blurred image shows the body of a Georgia prisoner hanging over the railing at Ware State Prison. Fellow inmates say he was there for at least 2 and a half hours because no officer was assigned to their dormitory to help.

Cell phone video shot inside Ware State Prison in Waycross, Georgia provides a stark example of how few employees are actually on the job these days.

The video showed a dead prisoner slumped over a cell block railing, while others complain he’s been there for hours because no officer is on duty in their section of the prison.

"No officer has came back in this building," said the anonymous inmate who narrates the video. "Ain’t nobody in over three hours. We have an inmate here that is dead …. hanging right here for the last two hours at least. Two and a half hours. Dead."

The cell phone video begins by documenting the time and date, then eventually shows a dead inmate slumped over a second floor railing. No foul play is suspected according to a prison spokesperson.

The video starts with a shot of the narrator’s watch showing the time of 8:17 a.m. on July 3, 2021.

The video also shows no officer behind the glass of the control center for the cellblock.

The dead man is 54-year-old John Ekers, convicted in 1991 for murder in Cobb County. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. No foul play is suspected. A Department of Corrections spokesperson said staff arrived 18 minutes after the video was recorded.

Another prisoner in the cellblock said staff only showed up for the standard morning count, making sure all inmates were there. He said there was no way to alert an officer before that.

A GDC spokesperson said "It is extremely important to ensure any premature judgments of the details are reserved until the facts are fully investigated and confirmed, and our Office of Professional Standards is currently investigating the incident to determine specifics." 

Christina Remlin is head of litigation for the Southern Center for Human Rights, a regular critic of how the state prison system is run.

"I can’t imagine a more dramatic illustration of the total crisis of violence and chaos inside of our prison system," said Christina Remlin of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

Georgia’s prison system is already under federal investigation. The Justice Department cited lawsuits filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights as a basis for its probe.

Those lawsuits accused the state of violating the civil rights of prisoners, putting their lives in danger often because of low staffing.

"Many other men have died of unknown causes when no or few officers were present in the dormitory," reads one allegation in the lawsuit.

"You have many facilities across the state running staffing vacancy rates that are close to 70 percent," Remlin said. "So you really only have one officer in a situation where you need three."

According to records collected by the Southern Center for Human Rights, Ware had a 68 percent job vacancy rate in January.

DOJ investigators visited Ware State Prison in the days leading up to Ekers' death. (GDC photo)

The DOJ investigators actually paid a visit to Ware last month, days before Ekers’ body would be left hanging over a railing for hours.

The Department of Corrections turned down a request from the FOX 5 I-Team to interview Commissioner Timothy Ward.

Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward. (GDC photo)

In a written statement, a spokesperson said "we remain committed to ensuring the safety of both staff and offenders, and we continually evaluate any need for improvement in our processes as they relate to our non-negotiable mission of the safe and secure operations of our facilities and the safety of the public."

But some aren’t so sure.

"I think the Department of Corrections is trying to manipulate the free world saying that it’s not a problem," said Andrew Richardson, a former state prisoner released in November.

Andrew Richardson blames low staffing on not getting him quick medical care after a prison yard stabbing. 

Before he finished his sentence on drug charges at Rogers State Prison, the 43-year-old Madison resident said he was stabbed by a fellow inmate multiple times.

"I was bleeding out like three ways like the cartoon, the water coming out of the cartoon," he demonstrated. "Just bleeding, bleeding, bleeding and then passed out. There wasn’t an officer 100 foot away from me. No help."

He said the lack of guards made life more dangerous than when he first went to prison nearly 20 years ago. And for anyone who doesn’t care about what happens to inmates, if a federal investigation determines civil rights violations, Georgia taxpayers could be on the hook for a lot of money.

"I accepted my punishment," said Richardson. "I took it. Now it’s time for the Department of Corrections to take their wrongdoing and to fix this."

GDC recruiters seek applicants across the state, even during holiday parades. (GDC photo)

They seem to be trying. Recruiters fan out across the state nearly every week. Entry level pay was raised to $18.28 an hour. But in this economy, job seekers can likely find similar pay without the workplace dangers.

"The job is a very, very traumatizing one, and in this context right now there’s a lot of chaos, a lot of violence," said Remlin. "It’s understandable why people don’t want to work there."

Underscoring the staffing issues, the FOX 5 I-Team managed to interview one of the inmates who was there when Ekers body was left hanging, apparently for hours.

The inmate used a smuggled cell phone to talk to us through Google Duo directly from his bunk.

"That was very traumatic," he told us, remembering the morning Ekers’ body was discovered by his fellow prisoners. "People that need to get the proper attention are dying that don’t need to be dying. If they had the proper staffing, people will get the proper attention they need."