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Jackson prison warden shares stories
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The original version of this article contained an error. A jury deadlocked on whether to give Brian Nichols the death sentence in 2008.

Three Newton County criminals are on death row, and if they’re ever put to death, the lethal injections will take place at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

The prison is best known as the site of public executions and it still has its old electric chair on site, a relic shown in tours. Warden Bruce Chatman isn’t sure why people choose to sit in it, but they do.

Chatman never intended to enter the corrections field, and he told community leaders and fellow law enforcement officers at the Kiwanis Club of Covington’s Thursday meeting he used to hate his prison guard job.

“My stomach used to hurt when I turned in the driveway on the (prison) property…I thought it was a duty to drive inmates, be hard, be tough and mean and make sure to keep my foot on their necks at all times. That’s what I saw on TV. That was my idea of what a person in the prison system was supposed to do,” Chatman said. “So I was at work every day arguing with inmates, making sure they did exactly what I said, the way I said it, every time I said it. I was burning myself up.”

Chatman said his behavior changed when he realized he was the entertainment for the prisoners.

“They would say, ‘Here he comes,’ and they’d get me going, and I would fall for it every time,” he said.

“After I realized that, I started really enjoying dealing with those inmates and my co-workers.”
Despite some of the terrible crimes the inmates in Jackson have committed, “they are people,” Chatman said. “There is a side of humanity.”

In Jackson, they see all kinds, the good and the bad.

Opened in early 1969, the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison sits on 900 acres complete with multiple prison sections, an administrative building, a training facility, firing range, obstacle course and classrooms. There’s even a fire station outside the perimeter fence which serves the public and employs some prisoners close to parole who earn their firefighter certification.

Every man who enters Georgia prison system has to pass through Jackson to get a full diagnostic workup, so it’s a major hub that sees about 125 prisoners arrive per day at least four days out of the week. More than 18,000 prisoners arrived in 2012 and more than 16,000 came to Jackson in 2013. The prison has 1,723 diagnostic beds to house those going through the seven to 10-day diagnostic process that involves a medical examination, psychological examination, education testing and a security review to determine which permanent institution a prisoner will be assigned to.

The latest numbers from Chatman said Jackson housed 233 permanent inmates in its general population. Those inmates can take advantage of a handful of resources, while in prison, including substance abuse programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, GED classes and on-the-job training.

Those prisoners deemed to be more dangerous are housed in the prison’s special management unit, which has a capacity of 192 and around 173 current prisoners. Prisoners who start fights elsewhere are often brought to this unit.

Chatham mentioned multiple times that this wing houses Brian Nichols, the man who was on trial for rape when he stole a deputy’s gun at the Fulton County Courthouse and fatally shot a judge, court reporter and sheriff’s deputy and later, after escaping from the courthouse, a federal agent. A jury deadlocked on whether to give Nichols the death sentence in 2008.

Finally, the prison contains G House, known as death row. There are currently 91 inmates scheduled to die, though the longest inmate has been there for more than 40 years – Chatham said it’s a long story.

From 1983 to 1998, the prison used the electric chair to kill 32 people. From 2001 to 2013 there have been 30 executions via lethal injection. The most recent injection was given Feb. 21, 2013 to Andrew Allen Cook, who shot two Mercer University college students multiple times in January 1995 – there were 15 bullet holes in one of the students’ cars.

There’s a lot of horror and sadness in Jackson, but there’s also a chance for learning and redemption.

Chatham said tours are popular, particularly for students and particularly when the inmates speak.

“I can stand and talk until I’m blue in the face, ‘Don’t mess up,’ and tell them what it’s like to be in prison, but it doesn’t mean as much coming from me. But coming from someone who is 19 or 20 years old, not that far removed from them, it means more.

“It’s helpful for the inmates too. One guy has a life sentence, and the chances are that he’ll be here maybe 30 years right now – the average life sentence serves 30 years before getting released. One thing that helps him is looking forward to talking to students. It’s his way to try to give back, because he’s taken so much from being in and out of the system through the years. I tell him to be honest, brutally honest, let the men know what goes on in a place like this. Maybe he can help steer somebody in the right direction.”