Originally created 04/17/99

Prisons chief steps aside



ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes turned to the criminal justice arena Friday to begin the remaking of the state departments and boards he had put off until after the 1999 General Assembly session.

Mr. Barnes accepted the resignation of Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner and recommended Board of Pardons and Paroles member Jim Wetherington to replace him as state prisons chief.

The move created a domino effect that prompted other changes. Mr. Barnes appointed Juvenile Justice Commissioner Eugene Walker to succeed Mr. Wetherington on the parole board.

And the governor recommended Orlando Martinez, a prison consultant from Atlanta, to replace Mr. Walker at Juvenile Justice.

Mr. Barnes dismissed recent speculation that Mr. Garner was being fired.

The governor said Mr. Garner told him in December that he wanted to leave state government to run his funeral home business, but agreed to stay through the legislative session.

"I have nothing but the highest regard for Wayne," Mr. Barnes said. "This is not a firing ... This is a transition that Wayne initiated some time ago."

"I thank you for facilitating my release from prison," Mr. Garner quipped to Mr. Barnes during a news conference announcing the changes.

Mr. Garner was named corrections commissioner in 1995, after Allen Ault resigned because of philosophical differences with then-Gov. Zell Miller.

Inmate advocacy groups have criticized Mr. Garner for presiding over impromptu searches of prisons, including allegations that he watched inmates at Hays State Prison being beaten. That 1996 incident resulted in a lawsuit that the Department of Corrections settled for $285,000.

Earlier this year, records revealed that Mr. Garner had used his state cellular phone for private business, running up bills in the thousands of dollars.

Mr. Barnes said nothing he has read shows that excessive force has been used in state prisons.

"Law enforcement is not for the faint of heart or the weak," he said. "It's not for those who don't realize that you're dealing with some of society's worst people."

Mr. Garner predicted a successful tenure for Mr. Wetherington, a former Columbus police chief, in part because he is leaving the new commissioner a well-run department.

"There are more inmates in education programs today than in the history of the state," Mr. Garner said. "All of the class-action lawsuits that I inherited have been settled."

Mr. Walker has been juvenile justice commissioner since 1995. Like Mr. Garner, he served with Mr. Barnes in the Georgia Senate.

Mr. Martinez was the director of juvenile justice in Colorado for 17 years before moving to Georgia. Mr. Barnes said he is recognized nationwide as an expert in the field.

Mr. Barnes' nominations of Mr. Wetherington and Mr. Martinez are subject to confirmation by the corrections and juvenile justice boards, respectively.

Mr. Garner said his next priority will be running his business.

But he did not close the door on the possibility of seeking the Democratic nomination next year to challenge U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Smyrna.

Dave Williams is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.