Life in prison: A look at becoming an inmate

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Life in prison: A look at becoming an inmate
Prisoners stand while being processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. They arrive by the busload each Tuesday and Thursday, dozens of new inmates entering Georgiaâs prison system. Most stay only a week or two. But for those sentenced to die, this is their last stop. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Frederick Harris, right, cuts the hair of Josh Harris, no relation, as he is processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. When inmates arrive, their possessions are inventoried. Then they shower and don white jumpsuits. They sit in barber chairs while permanent inmates give them close haircuts, then pose for an ID photo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A motivational poster hangs on the wall as prisoners stand at attention while being processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The prison, the stateâs biggest, houses about 2,100 male inmates on a wooded, 900-acre campus about 50 miles south of Atlanta. A warden and three deputy wardens oversee more than 600 employees. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Prisoner Ricky Wheat looks out from his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Inside the prison itâs loud and busy. Heavy metal gates clank open and shut. Inmates shuffle in single-file lines, guided by just a few guards. Chatter, shouts and the crackling of radios echo with nothing soft in sight to absorb the sound. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A prisoner faces a mural painted by inmates on a cinderblock wall inside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. When visitors approach, inmates in the hallways turn their backs and stand close to the walls. That makes it easy for guards to spot a guy who steps out of line. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Capt. Dwain Williams checks on a prisoner in the the Special Management Unit, known as high-max at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Face-to-face interaction is rare. The cells are only 7 by 13½ feet, and inmates canât see out unless guards slide back a metal cover over the grated opening on the door. Meals slide through an opening like a mail slot. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An inmate looks out of his cell in the the Special Management Unit, known as high-max at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. A select few have glass instead of sliding metal doors as windows because theyâre known to hurt themselves and need extra supervision. Theyâre on the same row as others whose cells are behind a glass partition because they have a history of throwing things, including bodily fluids, from their cells. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An inmate takes a GED exam at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. While many in high-max wonât ever be free, some will eventually get out. The GED program aims to help a relatively small number of inmates who will eventually get out be better prepared for release. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Sgt. Michael Stovall looks through a set of security gates on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The inmates on death row have been convicted of horrific crimes, but they generally cause few problems according to prison Warden Bruce Chatman. Possibly because many still have appeals pending and donât want to risk jeopardizing a chance, however slim, that their lives could be spared, he said. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Personal items sit on shelves of a prisoner's cell on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The 76 death row inmates live in four âpodsâ of neatly kept single-inmate cells measuring just 6½ by 9 feet and feature a bed, sink, toilet and shelves. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Shoes sit under a prisoner's bed in his cell on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Georgia has executed inmates by injection since October 2001, when the state Supreme Court ruled electrocution violated the stateâs ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A prisoner on death row stands in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. An electric chair that was used in 23 executions, a primitive-looking wooden armchair outfitted with leather straps, now sits unused in a closet off the area where witnesses sit for executions. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A cell sits empty on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Once a judge signs an execution order, the warden meets with the inmate to read him the order, give him a copy and ask if he has any questions. The inmate doesnât return to death row but instead is held in the prisonâs medical area under 24-hour watch by two guards for the roughly two weeks until his execution date. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A calendar hangs inside a prisoner's cell on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. On the day of the execution, the condemned inmate can receive visitors until about 3 p.m., when heâs given a medical checkup and then brought to a holding cell near the execution chamber around 5 p.m. Heâs given his final meal and has an opportunity to record a final statement. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Sgt. Andrew Archie walks through death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The 76 death row inmates live in four âpodsâ of neatly kept single-inmate cells measuring just 6½ by 9 feet and feature a bed, sink, toilet and shelves. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Prison Warden Bruce Chatman talks with prisoners on death row as they walk in a yard at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. On the unusually warm early December morning, six men were in the yard that includes basketball and volleyball nets. Several took the opportunity to bend the wardenâs ear, asking about a backed-up toilet and people allowed to visit. Another asked: âHey, warden. Can you help us get a basketball? Itâs been over two months.â (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Correctional officers are reflected in a puddle as they stand guard outside a yard for death row inmates at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Inmates are allowed into the common area or into the outside yard in small groups of men who are known to get along. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Deputy Warden of Security Keith Eutsey, left, and Warden Bruce Chatman walk to the execution chamber along rows of barbed wire at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Death row inmates donât have far to go when their appeals run out. The chamber where lethal injections take place, a small room with a gurney, separated by a large pane of glass from the observation area, is on the grounds. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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JACKSON, Ga. (AP) — They arrive by the busload each Tuesday and Thursday, dozens of new inmates entering Georgia's prison system. Most stay only a week or two. But for those sentenced to die, this is their last stop.

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, the state's biggest, houses about 2,100 male inmates on a wooded, 900-acre campus about 50 miles south of Atlanta. A warden and three deputy wardens oversee more than 600 employees.

Most inmates stay just long enough to determine which of the state's 31 prisons is the best fit. A couple hundred are processed in or out any given Tuesday or Thursday in a hectic scene as off-white buses with red accents pack the transfer yard.

"I'm always amazed that we always seem to put the right inmate on the right bus and he ends up at the right facility," prison Warden Bruce Chatman said as he led an Associated Press reporter and photographer behind the prison walls.

About 250 low- or medium-security offenders serve their sentences here, providing labor that keeps the prison running. Nearly 200 of the state's most problematic inmates are kept in a high-security area, though many are eventually moved.

On death row, however, the only hope of leaving is a new or commuted sentence or exoneration.

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When inmates arrive, their possessions are inventoried. Then they shower and don white jumpsuits. They sit in barber chairs while permanent inmates give them close haircuts, then pose for an ID photo.

Guards immediately work to instill order and discipline. Even the newest arrivals — some still dripping from showers and others mid-haircut — know what to do when the warden appears with guests.

"Sir, good morning, sir. Ma'am, good morning, ma'am," they shout in unison following a guard's prompt.

Clean, shorn and photographed, they're led to a sorting area ringed by small offices where counselors and medical professionals interview the new arrivals to determine where they belong.

Some are nervous and quiet, this being their first trip. Others know the routine and sometimes cause trouble.

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The cinderblock walls in the hallways in the main part of the prison are painted drab shades of gray and beige. The linoleum floors have been buffed to an impressive shine by inmate laborers, and a faint smell of cleaning chemicals lingers in the air. Murals painted by inmates provide splashes of color, many serving as reminders of their right to not be sexually assaulted.

It's loud and busy. Heavy metal gates clank open and shut. Inmates shuffle in single-file lines, guided by just a few guards. Chatter, shouts and the crackling of radios echo with nothing soft in sight to absorb the sound.

When visitors approach, inmates in the hallways turn their backs and stand close to the walls. That makes it easy for guards to spot a guy who steps out of line.

___

The Special Management Unit, known as high-max, houses the most violent inmates. They include those known to cause problems even before their convictions, like notorious Atlanta courthouse shooter Brian Nichols. Others caused trouble elsewhere — about three dozen have killed another inmate.

In contrast to the noisy bustle of the main prison building, the hallways here are eerily quiet. Inmates can leave their cells only five hours a week, under the supervision of guards with their wrists and ankles shackled.

Face-to-face interaction is rare. Some play chess, keeping boards in their cells and shouting moves back and forth.

The cells are only 7 by 13½ feet, and inmates can't see out unless guards slide back a metal cover over the grated opening on the door. Meals slide through an opening like a mail slot.

Most inmates will eventually be considered for release into the general prison population if they behave.

In a room used for GED prep classes, large sheets of paper on the walls are scrawled with mathematical formulas, highlights of the civil rights movement and summaries of constitutional amendments.

While many in high-max won't ever be free, some will eventually get out. The GED program aims to help a relatively small number prepare for release.

"We look at it like some of these guys are going to be going home and are going to be somebody's neighbor," unit superintendent Rodney McCloud said.

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What It's Like To Work On Death Row

The inmates on death row have been convicted of horrific crimes, but they generally cause few problems, Chatman said. Possibly because many still have appeals pending and don't want to risk jeopardizing a chance, however slim, that their lives could be spared, he said.

The 76 death row inmates live in four "pods" of neatly kept single-inmate cells measuring just 6½ by 9 feet and feature a bed, sink, toilet and shelves. Through the bars on the front of their cells, inmates look out on a narrow common area with three tables and five mounted TVs.

Inmates are allowed into the common area or into the outside yard in small groups known to get along.

On an unusually warm early December morning, six men were in the yard that includes basketball and volleyball nets. Two men shared a set of earbuds, listening to music as they chatted and walked laps.

Several took the opportunity to bend the warden's ear, asking about a backed-up toilet and people allowed to visit. Another asked: "Hey, warden. Can you help us get a basketball? It's been over two months."

___

John Conner — who killed a friend who said he'd like to go to bed with Conner's girlfriend in January 1982 — smiled at a small group of reporters visiting death row in October. His appeals are running out, he said.

"I'm hanging in there. I'm still kicking. In here, that's a good thing," Conner said when asked how he was doing.

Asked how he passes time, Conner grinned, baring gaps in his teeth. "I'm glad you asked."

He lifted a corner of his mattress and pulled out a stack of watercolor landscapes, images he hasn't seen with his own eyes in decades. He never painted before he got to prison, he said, but learned by following a Saturday morning painting show on television — likely the soothing lessons of Bob Ross, the man known for his frizzy hair and admonition that there are no mistakes, only "happy little accidents."

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Death row inmates don't have far to go when their appeals run out. The chamber where lethal injections take place — a small room with a gurney, separated by a large pane of glass from the observation area — is on the grounds.

On execution day, condemned inmates get a final meal and an opportunity to record a statement. Once all appeals have been exhausted, the warden fetches them.

"I will step to the inmate in the holding cell and let him know his time has come," Chatman said. "If I have a personal relationship with him, I might share a personal word with him."

Then a group of specially trained guards straps the inmate to the gurney. Two nurses place IV lines, and witnesses are seated on three wooden benches.

The inmate is allowed two minutes to make a final statement and is offered a prayer before the warden reads the execution order.

As the drug flows into his body through clear plastic tubes running from holes in the back wall, two doctors, out of sight of witnesses, watch a heart monitor. Once the line on the monitor goes flat, they check for signs of life. Then the warden announces the time of death and draws a curtain across the window.

Opinion Journal: The Truth About U.S. Prisons

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