A new podcast sheds light on problems in the Georgia Department of Corrections by looking closely at one facility: Smith State Prison in Tattnall County. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with the hosts.

Evey Wilson Wetherbee (left) and Jessica Szilagyi are the hosts of the podcast "Prison Town."

Evey Wilson Wetherbee (left) and Jessica Szilagyi are the hosts of the podcast "Prison Town."

Credit: Courtesy

The Georgia Department of Corrections currently faces a number of problems: aging facilities, overcrowding, understaffing and criminal activity, both among those who are incarcerated and those who work at the facilities. These problems are not new, but the extent to which they are endemic is the subject of a new podcast that sheds light on the whole system by looking closely at one facility: Smith State Prison in Tattnall County. The podcast is called Prison Town. And with me now are its hosts, Evey Wilson Wetherbee, who teaches journalism at Mercer, and Jessica Szilagyi, publisher of the news outlet The Georgia Virtue. They spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: I'll start with you, Evey. Why did you want to focus on this one prison for this project?

Evey Wilson Wetherbee: I work at Mercer and we work with partner publications that were all reporting on the Georgia Department of Corrections because the federal Department of Justice was investigating and is currently investigating them for civil rights violations. So I had been reporting on different stories on the uptick of violence in our local prisons here. But I came across this story in the Georgia Virtue. And it illuminated all of these things that we saw across the Georgia Department of Corrections. So it was this wild story where the violence had left the prison walls and it also illuminated contraband issues, understaffing, violence, gang activity — all of these things that we've seen throughout all of a sudden were illuminated in this one story that was originally reported by Jessica Szilagyi.

Peter Biello: And I want to get to that story in a moment. But first, I want to ask you, Jessica, because you've been reporting on prisons there in Tattnall County for a while. Can you tell me a little bit about the landscape there? How many prisons are in that area? How long you been covering them and what have you — what have you been seeing over the years?

Jessica Szilagyi: So off and on, I've been covering stories from the prisons and just how the prisons impact the county for about seven years. Until 2022, Tattnall County had three prisons in its one small rural farm county. It was unique because there's no other county that currently has that many prisons. And then not to mention that it was Georgia State Prison, which obviously housed some very serious maximum security offenders, as did Smith and then Rogers State Prison. So it's been a foundation of the community for a very long time.

Peter Biello: Evey, you mentioned a story that brought all this to the fore. I'm going to spoil it a little bit for listeners because the podcast itself takes a long time to unspool this story. I'd like to leave that for listeners to enjoy. It's a multi-part podcast. I'll spoil it a little bit. So if you don't want the spoiler, just skip ahead about a minute into this interview. But essentially that story is the investigation starts with the murder outside the prison walls orchestrated from inside the prison walls. And it's eventually revealed that an incarcerated man hired someone to murder a corrections officer. But those who were hired to kill the corrections officer go to the wrong house and they kill an innocent person who is a upstanding citizen, very well-regarded. And that's how the public is first really shocked by all this. So how did an inmate manage to coordinate such a thing from prison? How does an inmate get the resources and the connections on the outside to make this happen? Maybe we'll start with you, Evey.

Evey Wilson Wetherbee: It's really clear that many inmates have access to contraband cellphones. And on some sides of that, it's a really good thing because they can talk to their families and they can communicate what's happening on the inside to the outside. But this was a unique case where a contraband cellphone was able to be used to hire a hitman on the outside of prison to continue criminal activity across the prison walls. What we found in our reporting is that a lot of that contraband comes in through people that work at the prison. So, corrections officers, security — people that actually work there. And as we were doing our reporting, we kept wondering how far up that corruption went. And it just seemed like at a certain point, everyone who worked there had to know. You had to see it at some point. So we were wondering how far up it went. We had our answer on Feb. 8 when the warden got arrested for corruption.

Peter Biello: Yeah. Let me back up on that. Jessica, how deep did it go? I mean, to get through these checkpoints, a lot of people have to be in on it, right?

Jessica Szilagyi: Absolutely. You factor in two different things. You factor in that they're short staffed, so there's not as many people that would be observing or would be the I guess, standing in the gap between good and bad and the Department of Corrections because they are so understaffed. And then you also factor in that the warden has been charged and so everything from the top had trickled down. And it begs the question of: why would a — an officer who see something wrong ask or try to stop it if at the top they're saying, "oh, it's fine" or turn a blind eye or whatever the case may have been?

Peter Biello: Overall, what I'm hearing from this podcast is that because of low staffing, which is in part because of low pay, people on the outside of prison aren't safe because people inside are able to order these hit jobs. People on the inside aren't safe because riots, when they occur, can't be quelled. They have to just lose steam on their own and then corrections officers can step in. The people who are incarcerated are not rehabilitated in any way. In fact, because of the violence there, they're subjected in part to more trauma. So when they are released, if they are released, they're not better. In fact, in a lot of cases, worse. And this is in part costing the nearby county because of the multiple trips that EMS has to make to the prison to help people who are injured because they are not protected properly by the guards. That a lot. That's a lot for the the state to have to address. I'm wondering what you've heard from the state in response to all your reporting and all the conclusions you draw.

Jessica Szilagyi: I think that it's really important to point out that the state's response has been absolutely nothing. They hurried and closed Georgia State Prison in early 2022. They did it very fast. And now there's this proposal for a 3,000-bed facility to be built, and one of the prospects is Tattnall County. So they shuttered a prison. They're down to two. And now they're talking about bringing in an even bigger, "better" facility. And the people are outraged. So the state solution is, "Well, we can give you this better prison that we can hopefully keep more secure and that will solve all your problems." But we already know that that simply is not possible.

Evey Wilson Wetherbee: And that better prison is supposed to be for 3,000 inmates. You know, we have 40,000 inmates in the state. And what we have found in our reporting is that the issues that we see at Smith are pervasive across the Georgia Department of Corrections.