It’s 2:40 p.m. Wednesday outside the aging Hall County Detention Center on Main Street. Moving day.
Standing on concrete on the back side of the jail, surrounded by fences topped with razor wire, dozens of deputies in uniforms of brown and tan and combat green wait for the next line of prisoners to board a bus that will take them to the newly opened county jail some six miles away.
It’s the second day of a three-day operation that was eight months in the planning, in which 513 inmates are moved. And sheriff’s officials make no apologies if the overwhelming show of force, including a heavily armed SWAT contingent in riot gear and an aggressive pair of German Shepherds, seems heavy-handed.
"Our inmates range from those who are not violent to ones who are multiple murderers," Sheriff Steve Cronic said. "With the potential of danger to the community, it’s important that we keep this (move) as orderly, as secure, as smooth as we can. By having a strong show of force, we hope to deter anybody who might be thinking of causing unrest at either facility, or causing a problem during the transport, or attempt to escape."
The thoughts of past jail riots in Hall County aren’t too far from the minds of senior administrators. The last major riot, which involved fires at the old jail, was in 1988, five years after it opened.
"As we transport inmates, we don’t want to have an uprising here or in the new jail," Hall County Sheriff’s Maj. Jeff Strickland said. "This lets the inmates know we’re serious about this."
"Do you understand?"
For the inmates, the signal something is happening starts with the lockdown. No phone calls in nor out are allowed in the days leading up to and during the transfers.
On moving day, their small belongings, including toiletries and items bought at the commissary, are packed up and loaded into an equipment truck. Then, just prior to the move, they are taken to the showers. After dressing in their orange or red jumpsuits and shower shoes, they get fitted with their customary handcuffs and leg chains.
They are then lined up single file, 10 inmates at a time, and a deputy in SWAT gear enters the wing and barks his orders.
"Listen up: you’re being transported this afternoon," he says in his best drill sergeant voice. "Here’s the ground rules. Hands out, fingers straight apart. Close your mouth and look straight ahead. You step out of line and you will be dealt with accordingly. Do you understand?"
The inmates murmur their assent. Then they shuffle awkwardly out, walking only as well as leg chains allow, into the daylight and a gauntlet of uniformed officers.
One at a time, the inmates are taken to the side of the transport bus, searched a final time with their hands against the sheet metal, then led up and into the bus.
An equal number of whites, blacks and Hispanics, some with tattoos, many with buzz-cut hair and vacant stares, slowly board the bus. The colors of their jumpsuits indicated their flight risk: orange for medium security, red for maximum security. This load of 30 is half and half.
All the while, Bodo the German Shepherd barks incessantly, restrained on a short leash by his handler. He and his canine colleague, Ike, don’t appear to like prisoners. Or at least some of them.
"They just seem to know the ones who are trouble," Cronic said later.
A Georgia State Patrol helicopter hovers overhead. The final inmate is loaded into the caged passenger section of the bus, and Lt. Gary Smith, dressed incongruously in khakis, a windbreaker and a baseball cap, slides behind the wheel. A riot-gear-wearing SWAT officer stands shotgun beside him, looking over the prisoners seated in rows behind the steel-mesh divider.
At 2:55 p.m., as the bus rolls out, he radios, "Team leader to command, we are loaded and moving."
The prisoners look straight ahead. They are now part of a motorcade that seems second in security only to a presidential visit. Ahead of the bus, a patrol car and two sheriff’s motorcycles drive in advance. Behind it are five more sheriff’s vehicles, including a SWAT van and a tail car that is videotaping the entire procession. All have their blue lights flashing. The helicopter follows above.
The engine of the old International seems to strain under its cargo. The battered white- and orange-striped loaner from the Hall County Correctional Institute is older than many of its passengers. But it makes the six-mile trip in good time, mainly because it doesn’t stop until it reaches its destination.
Dozens of traffic enforcement officers have cut off all intersections along the route so that Smith can ignore every traffic light and stop sign.
At 3:06 p.m., the bus is crawling up the hill on Barber Road to the $54 million collection of light gray and tan industrial-style towers that is the new Hall County jail. Some of the inmates strain their necks to get a better look at their new home. They all stay silent.
As the chain-link gates slide open for the bus, Cronic is standing at the entrance, a stone-faced greeter for his new guests.
Then the procedure from before is repeated in the new jail’s sally port. Inmates are led through another phalanx of guards.
Bodo barks some more.
And the inmates, who have put up not one word or action of resistance, are inside the jail and led to their new cells.
Repeating until they’re all moved
This drill was run seven times Wednesday, and another six times Thursday.
The highest-risk prisoners — those considered most violent, who’ve tried to escape or have a history of causing problems behind bars — were taken individually in patrol cars as part of the motorcade. In some cases, they wore remote-activated electric stun belts as a further deterrence.
All told, the operation involved hundreds of deputies, from detention officers at both jails to traffic officers and police services deputies.
"It was a major undertaking that required a lot of resources and manpower," said Cronic, who believes it was one of the biggest logistical operations in the county’s history.
And it went off, by all accounts, without a hitch.
"The show of force has minimized any problem with the inmates" Cronic said.
Overkill: Planning for the worst
Bill Lemacks, a retired Clayton County sheriff, has "moved in" to the new jail, in Cronic’s words, to serve as a consultant from the Georgia Sheriffs Association. It’s his 36th new jail opening, and among the biggest at 1,026 beds.
Prisoner transfers, regardless of size, have always gone smoothly in his experience, Lemacks said.
"We always try to do it, if anything, with a little bit of overkill in terms of security," Lemacks said. "And we’ve never had a major problem."
That didn’t keep Cronic from worrying until the final prisoner was safely inside the new jail.
"We always hope for the best and plan for the worst," Cronic said on Friday, a day after the transfer was complete. "As sheriff, you’re going to worry until you get that last one in safely and securely. Last night was probably the first good sleep I’ve had all week."