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Lawsuits Target Georgia Prison Abuse

by Robert Bensing, Esq.

Prisoners in Georgia have recently filed two lawsuits, challenging the Georgia Department of Corrections' (GDC) shakedowns of Georgia prisons. A shakedown entails a search of an entire prison's prisoner population and prisoner living areas. While the shakedowns are ostensibly to discover contraband, many prisoners have alleged that they were physically abused during these operations.

The first lawsuit, McClendon v. Garner, was filed in the U.S. Middle District Court in Macon, Georgia, in August of 1996. It alleges that the GDC's Tactical Squad, under the direct personal supervision of GDC Commissioner Wayne Garner, beat ten prisoners during its shakedown of the Scott State Prison.

The second lawsuit, Anderson v. Garner, alleges that Garner led shakedowns of the Hays and Walker State Prisons (conducted on the same day) resulted in the beatings of dozens of prisoners, including the fourteen plaintiffs in the case. This suit was filed in the U.S. Northern District Court in Rome, Georgia, in November of 1996. Unlike McClendon, the plaintiffs in Anderson are seeking class certification, and a court order directing that future shakedowns be conducted in a lawful manner.

Both case were filed by attorney Robert Bensing of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, a group which specializes in prisoner civil rights and death penalty litigation. The cases claim that the manner in which the shakedowns are conducted violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

GDC Commissioner Garner is the chief defendant in both cases, and A.G. Thomas, one of his top deputies, is also named as a defendant in the Anderson case. While the plaintiffs are not claiming that Garner directly beat up any prisoners, they are alleging that he watched the beatings, that he encouraged them, and that he has covered them up by repeatedly claiming that no one was hurt during the shakedowns. Some individual officers who beat prisoners are also named as defendants, although many plaintiffs were unable to name their assailants (because GDC Tactical Squad guards do not wear name tags, and do not regularly work in the prisons where shakedowns are conducted).

The GDC's conduct of shakedowns is in line with the Department's "get tough" approach, enacted by Garner after he took over as GDC Commissioner in December of 1995. In Garner's first public speech after becoming Commissioner, he stated that "30-35% of GDC prisoners ain't fit to kill." Garner has made it clear that rehabilitation will play absolutely no role in GDC policy while he is Commissioner; as a cost-cutting move, he recently fired most GDC teachers. His approach, in his own words, is to make the prison experience "not a pleasant one." [PLN, April '96.]

The question the two recently filed cases raise is whether Garner's approach includes permitting the beatings of dozens of prisoners. That question will not be answered until the cases that are only at the start of the discovery phase go to trial.

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Related legal case

McClendon v. Garner; Anderson v. Garner