MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- Outside, the prison resemble nothing so much as a low-lying suburban office park or a modern middle school. It sits in a wooded area far off the main road south of Milledgeville, a central Georgia town of antebellum mansions and a distinctly Southern air.
Five prisons are clustered here, not counting a youth detention facility, making the care and feeding of convicts the economic lifeblood of the area. In such a setting, the Georgia Women's Correctional Institution is an utterly unremarkable presence.
Its appearance is at odds, however, with the image conjured by stories of late -- stories of rape, of pregnancies and forced abortions, of women prisoners left stripped and bound for weeks.
The women -- Jane Does, they are called -- have been coming forward for months, almost 200 in all. They tell of women treated like dogs, bound and fed from dishes shoved under their faces; of guards photographing women engaged in sex acts; of inmates being taken off the grounds to work as prostitutes.
The allegations, in their totality, suggest a prison out of control, a place where even the men in charge -- and, perhaps significantly, they were men -- tolerated, if not condoned, rampant abuse for at least 13 years.
"They allowed this whole culture of abuse [to develop]," says Robert Cullen, a legal services attorney representing the inmates in a class-action lawsuit. "Abuse was OK. It didn't matter. . . . Everybody became sort of inoculated to the abuse that was ongoing."
Sex between guards and female inmates is a given in prison -- whether consensual or coerced, it has always taken place. A number of states, including California, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, have had similar controversies. But Brenda Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project of the National Women's Law Center, says she knows of no investigation as widespread as the one in Georgia.
For a long time, prison officials here did not want to believe the allegations of sexual abuse. Now, they are convinced a good number are true. Allen Ault, special assistant to the corrections commissioner appointed in October to address the problem, says he has talked with some of the women and "most of the stories that I've heard have been credible."
At least partly acknowledging the problem, state prison officials fired one warden and demoted another Dec. 7 because of their poor stewardship. Also, 14 prison employees were indicted in November for abusing inmates.
What is different about these allegations is not only their depth and breadth, but also the duration of the abuse, says Mr. Cullen.
Some allegations go back to 1979, even before a similar prison scandal resulted in the firing of a deputy warden and the passing of legislation making it a felony for guards to engage in sex with prisoners, one of the few such laws in the nation.
But critics say the law had little effect within the facility: Sexual abuse was unabated. And although in some cases sexual relations between inmates and staff were consensual, corrections officials say that also will no longer be tolerated.
Officials say the problems here are a manifestation of strains that affected women's prisons nationally during the 1980s, as their combined population tripled to a record 40,556 -- mostly the result of a staggering 307 percent increase in women's drug arrests. Prison staffing and training lagged.
Mr. Ault acknowledges that the Georgia system was slow to react but insists it is improving. The investigation that resulted in November's indictments has been widened to include two other women's facilities. Since March, a steady stream of women have taken polygraph tests or given sworn statements implicating about 50 prison employees. Ten people have been fired, nine have resigned, five have been transferred, and six have been suspended. Additional indictments are expected.
Mary Esposito, a moderate, veteran administrator, was brought in last April to serve as warden at the Georgia Women's Correctional Institution. She installed a new administrative team and is instituting reforms designed to regain inmates' trust.
The scandal -- and the state's long denial of a problem -- has touched "a deep well of anger" in Georgia women, says Murphy Davis, state director of Southern Prison Ministries, one of a number of organizations that have formed the Coalition for Justice for Women Behind Bars. The coalition, which includes the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women's Policy Group, the Coalition of 100 Black Women and religious groups, lobbies for reform in women's corrections.
Some reforms already have been implemented; for example, the prison's population -- thanks to the accelerated opening of a new facility -- has decreased since April from 920 to a more manageable 720. Ms. Esposito's goal is to lower it to 660.
In addition, abused inmates have been offered psychological counseling and support groups have been formed to deal with what Ms. Esposito calls "survivor-type issues," such as domestic violence. Staff training has been increased, and Ms. Esposito says she hopes to institute programs on substance abuse and women's medical issues.
Another issue that the new wardens hopes to address is the institution's high recidivism rate.
"That's a concern," she acknowledges. "A high percentage of [inmates] are coming back. . . . We hope to develop a model institution, offering people an opportunity to leave better prepared than when they came and not make the same mistakes that got them here."