The History of Georgia’s Lee Arrendale State Prison…Sort of

Incarcerated at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Georgia, our prison pen pal asked if the history of the prison might be something I could research on the Internet. One of her friends had become deeply interested in learning the background of the walls that hold them.

I told her, “Sure, why not? I may not be able to find that much, though. I know you have faith in my ability to research almost anything online, but this one might not be that easy.”

Those words were more prophetic than I knew. After two hours of combing the Net, I knew little more than those half frozen pigeons huddled on the power lines in the above photo.

Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration.

But “slight” is the operative word here. I’ll share what I found out, but the gaps in the data are bigger than the information blocks. Not only that, but some of the statements found through search engines were made without any way to cross check their accuracy.

Therefore, if any readers find inaccurate information here, please leave a correction in the comments. Additionally, if you know something about the facility’s history I was unable to find out, your comments would be more than appreciated.

Heck, if you’ve even got a photo of the place, we could use a copy of that as well. This prison isn’t exactly secret, but it’s no celebrity institution, either.

In the meantime, with all those caveats and requests in place, we’ll tell you what we’ve found out so far.

Lee Arrendale Women's Prison at Alto, Georgia.

Lee Arrendale Women’s Prison at Alto, Georgia.

First, the name. Lee Arrendale was at one time the Chairman of the Georgia Department of Corrections. The prison was named after him after he and his wife were killed in a plane crash.

Offline research, boots on the ground inside the state borders of Georgia, would undoubtedly make learning additional details a whole lot simpler. But, since that’s not an option at the moment, here’s what did not turn up on the Internet:

1. When Lee Arrendale served as Chairman.

2. What his legacy from that service might be, if any.

3. When and where he and his wife were killed in the plane crash.

4. When the prison was officially named for him.

Moving right along….

There’s a newer portion of the prison, but the original, older portion goes back to 1926–at which time, it was not used as a prison but as a TB sanitarium. As tuberculosis was more or less conquered, the need for the facility lessened. In 1950, it was turned over to the Georgia Department of Corrections. It opened as a prison in 1951.

Ew. Let’s hope they seriously sterilized that place before bringing in the convicts.

What did not turn up on the Internet:

1. The name of the TB sanitarium.

2. How many beds the facility contained.

For a time, Lee Arrendale State Prison–or whatever it was called before Arrendale’s plane crashed–housed younger male inmates, some as young as 13 years of age, only a minority of them over 25. Until sometime in the 1970’s, it fielded a tough-to-beat football team…until all the rest of the teams started refusing to play them. Public pressure eventually forced the team to disband.

The prison also gained a reputation for violence. By August of 2004, hearings were being held with abundant testimony regarding regular rapes of the most youthful offenders and the murder of eighteen year old Wayne Boatright, Jr., his windpipe crushed after he fought back in a rape gone wrong.

A publication called Creative Loafing provided details.

Lee 2 003

Lee 2 004

What a difference three months can make. In November of 2004, the biggest newspaper in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, got involved.

Lee 2 001

Lee 2 002

That did it. Boatright had been strangled to death in February of 2004. Creative Loafing published its scathing article in August of that year. The Atlanta Journal Constitution followed up in November…and the State decided it had to do something.

That something amounted to dispersing the male prisoners among other state institutions and converting Lee Arrendale to a women’s prison.

Our prison pen pal has been housed at Arrendale for…I don’t recall the exact date, but she was transferred from Metro in Atlanta well before that facility closed in 2011. She’s finishing up a long sentence and has had experience at Pulaski as well as at Metro and Arrendale, so she understands Georgia style incarceration for females pretty well. It’s no cakewalk, but it’s nothing like the pit of snakes young Wayne Boatright, Jr., faced when some of the state’s most violent male felons were housed there, either.

On the other hand, Arrendale does house Georgia’s Death Row for women. Not that Death Row is heavily populated, but it’s not quite vacant, either. The last female executed in Georgia was on March 5, 1945. There is one woman living on Death Row today.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner (aka Brookshire), now 41, was convicted of murdering her husband when she was 28 and he was 30. She recruited her lover to do the actual deed. Greg (lover) took Doug (husband) into the woods at knifepoint, forced him to his knees, clobbered him in the head with a nightstick, and then stabbed him a bunch of times.

Messy, but effective.

Apparent motive: Wishing to collect on two $10,000 life insurance policies and to profit from the couple’s $84,000 house.

Gissendaner was supposed to be executed more than a decade ago, but in her case, the appeals process is a whole ‘nother story. There’s far more data readily available on the Internet about the murder than there is about the history of the entire Lee Arrendale facility.

That’s it for now, folks. Feel free to help me fill in the gaps.

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Update: June 30, 2014. Carol left a comment with a link to the following video which was filmed by National Geographic at Arrendale. I just watched it. It’s very insightful. (There are a lot of ads sprinkled throughout, so keep your clicker handy.)

I will say that in my view the only truly evil-seeming person in the film is the Deputy Warden. That witch gave me the cold chills. Made my hackles rise right up, curled my lip back in a snarl every time she came on the screen but especially when she opened her nasty mouth. Ew-w-w!!

In all fairness, I’ve also been advised that the hair-raising Deputy Warden (then) is the Warden (now) and that she actually seems to have the welfare of the inmates in mind. I’ll have to take my informant’s word for it though; I’m pretty sure she still gives me the creeps.

UPDATE: November 9, 2014.

“Anonymous” just commented on the Alto Shuffle fighting style (see comments below), based on his time there before it was converted to a women’s prison. A quick check of the offerings on YouTube brought up a video illustrating the technique. I’ve embedded the video here; enjoy.
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Also, since it’s been mentioned that the prison scenes in My Cousin Vinny (the movie, circa 1992) were filmed at Alto with real inmates, here are a few screen shots from the film.

Screen shot from My Cousin Vinny, filmed at Alto, Georgia, in 1992.

Screen shot from My Cousin Vinny, filmed at Alto, Georgia, in 1992.

Screen shot from My Cousin Vinny, filmed at Alto, Georgia, in 1992.

Screen shot from My Cousin Vinny, filmed at Alto, Georgia, in 1992.

Screen shot from My Cousin Vinny, filmed at Alto, Georgia, in 1992.

Screen shot from My Cousin Vinny, filmed at Alto, Georgia, in 1992.

UPDATE: JANUARY 21, 2016…RETRO LOOK AT ALTO, CIRCA 1973

This page has been blessed with a contribution of images from the Alto of 1973, donated by Donald Thompson, whose comments can be seen below. In my opinion, these are historically significant items, preserved by a man who was an inmate at the time and who cared enough to not only save these mementos but to let us take a peek or two at this “blast from the past”.

Here we go.

Burt Reynolds at Alto in 1973, considering the prison for the setting in The Longest Yard.  (The movie was eventually filmed at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.)

Burt Reynolds at Alto in 1973, considering the prison for the setting in The Longest Yard. (The movie was eventually filmed at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.)


Water tower.

Water tower.

It’s pretty common knowledge (among those who pay attention to such things) that it’s possible for a high school dropout to attend some form of high school and receive a G.E.D. while in prison. Ditto for a bit of vocational training here and there….but it’s another thing entirely to see the evidence of these prison programs in writing, specifically in the form of a graduation program that looks a whole lot like any other. I’m thinking the yahoos out there who see inmates as something less than human would be at least mildly shocked.

“What?! This looks just like the program from when I graduated at Redneck High!”

Or something like that. The narrow mindset of some humans can be downright stunning.

George McNeal had to be one determined inmate. He’s listed as the only graduate in Electrical Repair. Can you picture yourself going through an entire job training program with no classmates to divert the attention of the instructor? That dude would be looking over your shoulder all the time!

Graduation program.

Graduation program.


Graduation program.

Graduation program.

Finally, the in-house prison newspaper. Unless you were born with the eyes of an eagle, you won’t be able to make out most of the text, but the headlines and pictures are worth the price of admission. Graduation news, goodbyes, jokes, sports, even an acknowledgement of the Inmate of the Month.

Yeah. Hold on. If you’ve never been in prison, that might sound almost humorous–although it certainly wasn’t funny to either the inmate or the prison staff at the time. I mean, Inmate of the Month? Really? Gotta be careful with that accolade, guys. Designate a man as Inmate of the Month and he might decide to stay there forever!

If the Inmate of the Month happened to be a lifer, of course, that would be all too literally true.

Alto 5
Alto 6
Alto 7
Alto 8
Alto 10
Alto 11

Interesting ads on that last page, right? So, where did the ad money go? Into programs for the inmates?

Hope springs eternal.

UPDATE: JANUARY 24, 2016

Just finished an excellent book, titled Into the Darkness Out Into the Light: One Man’s Journey, by Grant Cole. During 22 years of drug use, abuse, and dealing, before finding redemption in a rather impressive fashion, Cole was at one time incarcerated at Alto–and includes a chapter in his book titled Alto Blues. I just finished reading the book and, without tossing out any spoilers, can highly recommend it. To check it out on Amazon, CLICK HERE.

Yes, that does look a little strange, providing a link to somebody else’s book when I have my own to promote (on this page and on Amazon), but Into the Light is too good, and too relevant to our ongoing discussion of Lee Arrendale State Prison, to ignore.