JACKSON, Ga. – 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.