Georgia Prisons: A Blight On The Peach State
At one state prison guards are accused of routinely beating handcuffed prisoners. Nine guards have been fired and several officials, including the warden, have left their jobs. At another facility a prisoner died after
guards forcefully removed him from his cell. One guard was fired and another resigned in that incident.
The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) faces other problems as well. The prison commissioner is under fire for, among other things, soliciting funds from prison commissary vendors, and prison officials are struggling to determine how three prisoners on death row acquired escape supplies and tools that they used to saw through air vents in their cells. Prison officials have also been criticized for not reporting the murder of a prisoner until two days after his funeral, hobbling the criminal investigation.
Prisoners Murder Unreported
Christopher Southerland was not a violent man, but he died a violent death in the mental health unit of Rutledge State Prison in Reidsville. Tragically, no one may ever be held responsible for his murder because prison officials waited nearly a month after he was horribly beaten to contact the police.
On December 12, 2004, guards at Rutledge found Southerland lying unconscious in his cell, his head resting in a pool of blood. His cellmate stood nearby with blood splattered across his pants legs. Southerland, 32, never regained consciousness after the attack and died from his head wounds nearly three weeks later, on January 1.
Yet no one at the prison contacted police until six days after his death two days after his funeral, in fact. That delay, from December 12 until January 7, allowed Southerland to be buried without an autopsy or coroners inquest, although state law requires both when a prisoner dies under unusual circumstances or when a murder is suspected. The delay also kept police from examining the crime scene, gathering evidence, and interviewing witnesses while their memories were fresh.
Southerland had been imprisoned at Rutledge in March 2004 after he crashed a borrowed truck while intoxicated, violating his parole on a theft conviction. On December 12 he was one of 96 prisoners in the mental health unit, which was overseen by two guards.
Inga Morgan, the guard who found Southerland unconscious on the floor at 7:00 a.m., wrote in the incident report that Southerlands cellmate, 25-year-old Antwain Beasley, was acting nervous and anxious and had blood on his pant legs. At just under 6 feet tall and nearly 200 pounds, Beasley outweighed Southerland by almost 50 pounds. According to internal documents, Beasley, who was serving 15 years for aggravated assault and armed robbery, confessed to assaulting Southerland less than two hours later.
Southerlands grandmother said she is angry that guards did not protect him in the prisons mental health unit. When she visited her grandson at the hospital, Louise Southerland, 76, said shoe prints were embedded in his head. A hole in his ear bled for two days. I wish I could have kept him out, she said. But I couldnt. He just done little things. He didnt kill nobody. He didnt break into nothing. He didnt have a gun. None of those things. And now hes gone.
Ms. Southerland hopes that whoever is responsible for her grandsons death will be held accountable. She has retained attorney Sam Dennis of Valdosta, who stated, We are in the process of investigating this suspicious set of circumstances, and if the facts merit it, we will file a lawsuit against the responsible party.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) is investigating and stated it planned to exhume Southerlands body. We are trying to work with authorities to accomplish a scientific exhumation, investigation, and autopsy, said Dennis. No time has yet been set for the exhumation, and as of mid-2005, Antwain Beasley had not been charged in Southerlands death. Southerland was the twelfth Georgia prisoner to be murdered in the past four years.
Handcuffed Prisoners Routinely Beaten
Unfortunately, many guards and officials in Georgia prisons dont just passively allow violence to happen; instead, they actively engage in it. The GDOC has a long and inglorious history of prisoner abuse. From late 1995 to early 1999 the GDOC was the subject of many such claims under Commissioner Wayne Garner. In one incident, the prison system settled a federal lawsuit for $285,000. Other incidents include the beating of prisoners at the Hayes State Prison in 1996 and dozens of sexual abuse allegations at the Womens Correctional Institution in 1992.
Commissioner James Donald, who took over in 2003, says the focus now is on rehabilitation and that abuse will not be tolerated. Apparently no one got that message at Rogers State Prison, a 1,200-bed medium-security prison in Reidsville.
In July and August 2005, nine guards at Rogers were fired for routinely beating handcuffed prisoners. Rogers warden Glenn Rich, deputy warden P.P. Collins and Alan Adams, who was in charge of state prisons and wardens, were all suspended pending the outcome of an investigation. Rich retired on August 7 before the investigation was completed, and Adams resigned.
The investigation began when one of the guards at Rogers reported the beatings to the GBI. Guard Tommy Cardell told GBI investigators that during his three years at Rogers he witnessed between 20 and 30 beatings of handcuffed prisoners.
Cardell, 51, said he routinely reported the abuse to prison officials and initially believed his allegations were being investigated. When he realized nothing was being done he called GDOC headquarters in Atlanta. Cardell was then interviewed by a Reidsville-based investigator who, he said, only appeared interested in how many people knew about the beatings. As thanks for reporting the abuse, Cardell was fired on May 11, 2005 on trumped up charges of failing to cooperate with an investigation. Cordell says he had refused to answer questions he felt were hostile and irrelevant.
Cardell ultimately reported the abuse to a local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After the paper questioned Assistant Commissioner Brian Owens about the abuse, the GDOC sent a team of investigators to Rogers. The next day, on May 19, 2005, the department announced that three supervisors Lieutenant Reginald Langston, Lieutenant Rodney McCloud and Sergeant Jason Burns had been suspended and that the GBI had been asked to investigate. Its unclear if the three supervisors were among the guards fired at Rogers.
Cardell said prisoners were often taken to a shower area and brutally punched and kicked in ways that wouldnt leave big bruises or cuts. He also claimed that prison officials in some instances encouraged the mistreatment. Once, according to Cardell, when a prisoner made a flippant remark to Warden Glenn Rich, Rich had the prisoner taken to the shower and beaten so badly that he later coughed up blood. In another instance Cardell stated he saw a guard drag a handcuffed prisoner through Rogers, using him as a battering ram to open metal gates. The guard repeatedly kicked the prisoner in the groin and leg, Cardell said. They were doing two to three inmates a week then. You have no conscience if you can do that sort of thing, said Cardell. Cardell was eventually rehired by the GDOC but was kept on paid administrative leave during the investigation.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Savannah on May 13, 2005, Sergeant Burns was accused of wearing a pair of black leather gloves to beat a handcuffed prisoner in the shower. The suit, filed by Rogers prisoner Lancaster Graham, also contends that Burns, who is white, used racial slurs while beating Graham and that a guard spit in his face and rubbed the spit into his face with their boots. Graham, who is now out of prison, said life inside Rogers State Prison was like a man-made hell. The way they treat you in Rogers State Prison theres no excuse for it except ignorance or no heart.
When questioned by CNN reporters about Grahams allegations, GDOC employees, including Burns and then-Warden Glenn Rich, refused to comment. And when CNN tried to photograph the Rogers prison from a public road, at least half a dozen guards attempted to run them off. Eventually a state police dispatcher informed the guards that CNN was within its rights.
McNeil Stokes, the Atlanta attorney representing Graham, has filed four other federal lawsuits on behalf of Georgia prisoners alleging they were ruthlessly beaten by guards. The lawsuits describe in detail how GDOC prison guards berate, curse, humiliate and beat handcuffed prisoners. I would say the beatings are usual and frequent and sadistic at certain prisons, including Rogers in particular, Stokes said.
Regrettably, the abuse isnt limited to Rogers. In December 2004, Lebert Francis, a prisoner at the Calhoun State Prison in Southwest Georgia, filed a lawsuit claiming he was brutally choked, beaten, kicked, stripped naked, sexually brutalized and threatened with homosexual rape by guards. The beating was condoned and encouraged by the warden and assistant warden, Stokes claimed in the suit.
Also in December, Brian N. Williams, a prisoner at the Phillips State Prison, filed a lawsuit alleging he was brutally beaten, kicked, and repeatedly clubbed in the face and about his head with heavy metal flashlights by guards.
Following the allegations raised by Cardell about abuse by guards at Rogers State Prison, GDOC director Donald said he was considering establishing an ombudsmans office as an advocate for prisoners who allege abuse or misconduct. The centerpiece of the Department of Corrections is its people, said Donald. And we have some people out there who are clearly unsung heroes. And if theres just one among us who doesnt get the message, then we will deal with it.
Guards Implicated In Prisoner Death, Escape
At the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, a beating by guards may have resulted in a prisoners death last year. Charles B. Clarke III died at the Diagnostic Prison on April 19, 2005 from what the GBI and prison officials termed natural causes. According to a GBI autopsy, Clarke, 27, suffered a cardiac arrest when a blood clot dislodged and blocked one of his arteries.
A month earlier, however, Clarke had been injured when guards forcefully removed him from his cell. Prison officials contend the degree of force used in the March 18 incident did not contribute to Clarkes death. Even so, they initially refused to release Clarkes medical records claiming he had not specified his next of kin in prison paperwork.
After the cell extraction Clarke complained to medical personnel of pain and swelling in his head, torso and testicles. Additionally, the autopsy found bruises on his body, including a 10-by-4 inch bruise on his thigh. Several prisoners also wrote to Clarkes family and lawyer saying they saw guards repeatedly punch and kick him.
Following a GBI investigation, GDOC Lieutenant Reginald Goodrum, 39, was fired for using excessive force against Clarke and for lying to investigators. Another supervisor, Captain Ricky Goodrum, retired on August 1 while the investigation was ongoing. A GDOC spokesperson said the two men were not related.
Prison officials refused to specify how Lieutenant Goodrum had lied to investigators. However, in his report of the incident, Goodrum said he sprayed Clarke with a one or two-second burst of pepper spray as they prepared for the cell extraction. He also wrote that Clarke was injured shortly afterward when he slipped on a wet staircase while handcuffed.
But a videotape of the incident, required whenever force is used, showed a guard reaching into Clarkes cell with a can of pepper spray for at least 15 seconds. The videotape predictably ends before Clarke is injured, a common ploy used by prison guards who want to exact retribution during a use of force incident. Goodrum claimed the tape ended because the cameras battery had died.
Clarkes father, Charles B. Clarke, Jr., said Goodrums firing was not enough. I think theres more than one person involved, he said. But its a start. More than anything else, its an admission of guilt on their part that things were not done correctly.
The Diagnostic and Classification Prison was the scene of another GBI investigation following the attempted escape of three death row prisoners in August 2004. Before their plan was foiled, Andrew Grant DeYoung, 31, Michael Wade Nance, 43, and David Scott Franks, 44 had amassed a stunning array of contraband, including hacksaw and reciprocating saw blades, $280 in cash, knives, ski masks, duct tape, clothing, flashlights, rope made from bed sheets and even a map of Georgia. Two of the prisoners, Nance and Franks, worked for 14 months to saw through air vents in their cells, which allowed them to wriggle through the small openings into an enclosed area behind the cellblock.
They were working to cut down a door leading to another hallway and on cutting through the vents in De Youngs cell when their plan was discovered. A guard noticed a string attached to one of the vents and pulled it, causing the vent to collapse and expose the opening. The prisoners had fooled guards during routine counts by arranging pillows and blankets on their beds to make it appear they were sleeping.
At the time, prison officials were sure guards had aided the death row prisoners because some of the items, such as saw blades and cash, are not easily obtained inside the prison. Two guards were initially questioned, but as of June 2005 no one had been charged. DeYoung, Nance and Franks were placed in solitary confinement after their escape attempt was discovered.
The attempted escape did result in a number of policy changes. Guards and other employees are now required to pass through a metal detector upon entering the prison; a program that allowed condemned prisoners to crochet ski masks has been discontinued; and guards conducting counts on death row must now see a part of the prisoners body from under the covers and pillows. The prison has also stepped up random shakedowns, which quickly resulted in the arrest of a guard for drug possession.
Prison Director Abuses Post
Investigations into abuse and corruption have not been limited to the lower echelon of Georgia prison employees. Those at the top have garnered their own share of unwelcome attention.
In May 2005, GDOC Commissioner James Donald, a retired two-star Army General with no previous experience in corrections, was investigated by the GBI for pressuring prison vendors to make financial contributions to his Excellence in Corrections Conference. Donald raised money for the conference, held October 18-20, 2004, through golf tournaments funded primarily by prison vendors and through direct contributions. The investigation was launched when Ed Lipscomb, owner of the MCCBC snack food company, reported that he felt compelled to contribute to the conference in order to keep doing business with the state.
In all, private sponsors donated more than $100,000 to the conference $52,000 of which came from MCCBC and Stewart Candy Company, another provider of prison commissary goods. At least two other commissary vendors also made donations. Donald courted the contributions as he considered switching from a multi-vendor system to awarding the states entire commissary contract to a single company.
As expected, the state attorney generals office concluded that Donald had not committed a crime but cautioned him to avoid such practices. This could give the perception that decisions about who would retain or receive future contracts with DOC could be influenced by monetary contributions to causes favored by the commissioner, wrote Assistant Attorney General Kim Schwartz in a 10-page report sent to Donald on August 29, 2005.
Donald has a history of using his office for personal gain. According to the report, Lipscomb said he felt pressured to hire Donalds son, Jeff Donald, for $15,000 a year, but there was no indication what duties Jeff would perform. The plan was abandoned after it went public.
And even though Donald has often lamented that prison overcrowding has reached crisis proportions due in part to a shrinking budget he seems to find money for himself and his pet projects.
For example, Donald ordered himself a new Ford Crown Victoria from Georgia Correctional Industries, the agency in charge of prison manufacturing, even though the governors office had banned new car purchases due to budget concerns. Questions had also arisen as to whether he had authority to buy the car. Donald ordered it anyway, at a cost of $25,734.
To further waste taxpayer money Donald hired a health and fitness coordinator for GDOC employees in March 2005. The part-time job pays up to $31,668 per year $7,000 more than a new full-time prison guard earns.
The coordinators duties included holding aerobics classes at the GDOCs central office in Atlanta, writing articles, and sending e-mail tips about healthy eating. On June 6 and 7, 2005, health and fitness coordinator Claire Fate sent out e-mails extolling banana benefits and providing five reasons to eat an apple every day.
Donalds creation of a nutrition and fitness coordinator position came at a time when budget shortfalls were causing the GDOC to drastically scale back on prison counselors, chaplains and teachers. The money would be better spent bringing back some of the programs and services that have been cut from the prisons, such as counselors and chaplains, instead of giving kindergarten advice to staff about eating fruit, said Sara Totonchi, public policy coordinator for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
In fact, as Donald frittered away taxpayer money, numerous GDOC staff positions were being eliminated. Governor Perdues budget request for 2006 calls for cutting 105 positions from GDOCs payroll of 15,089. More than 600 jobs were cut in 2004, including numerous counselor positions. Also in 2004, Donald closed four regional corrections offices to save money. Following reports of abuses by GDOC guards, Donald stated that he doesnt believe the closure of the regional offices resulted in decreased supervision of prison staff.
Further, the GDOC announced in February 2004 that it would soon be cutting the number of employees monitoring the states privately run prisons from 3 to 1 to reduce costs. Two companies operate the states three private prisons: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) runs the Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls and the Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, while Cornell Companies operates the D. Fay James Correctional Facility in Folkston. The three prisons house 4,567 prisoners.
Private prisons are notorious for cutting costs at the expense of prisoner safety. The low wages and benefits paid by for-profit corrections firms can attract workers who would not be qualified to work in a public correctional setting, notes a report from the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees.
Donald may simply be following in his predecessors footsteps. In December 2003, a Fulton County jury convicted former GDOC Commissioner Bobby Whitworth of taking a $75,000 payoff while he was a member of the state parole board. Whitworth accepted the money to initiate and push through a bill that financially benefited a friends private probation company. Whitworth, 56, was sentenced to six months in prison, four years on probation, 100 hours of community service, and was fined $50,000. It remains to be seen whether Whitworth will actually serve time in prison. He remained free on bond while his case is appealed. [Whitworths appeal was recently denied see this issue of PLN for details.]
Its worth noting that Georgia jails are just as problematic as the states prisons. At the DeKalb County Jail, which a judge in 2001 called a dangerous breeding ground of disease, recent events include continuing court oversight of medical care and calls for investigations into two prisoner suicides in 2003 and the 2004 beating death of a 71-year-old prisoner who was being held on a misdemeanor charge by his 24-year-old cellmate in the jails mental health unit.
At the Henry County Jail officials are trying to determine how four prisoners escaped from the recreation yard in May 2005. Two other prisoners escaped from the jail in February and November 2004.
In Forsyth County, a 50-year-old woman employed by the Sheriffs Department was arrested for stealing approximately $53,000 from prisoner trust funds. Mary Lee Reynolds, who had sole control over the county jails Inmate Trust Fund, was charged with theft by taking on June 3, 2005 and released on $54,000 bail.
And at the Fulton County Jail three prisoners died in a one-month period from April to May 2005, including William Tommy Goss, who committed suicide; 17-year-old detainee Antonio Merritt, who died due to medical causes; and another prisoner whose name and circumstances of his death were not initially released by jail officials. The deaths come one year after a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Fulton County jail by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which included claims of gross overcrowding, understaffing, breakdowns in plumbing and ventilation systems, and poor recordkeeping that resulted in prisoners being kept past their scheduled release dates. Theres just no excuse for this, said Southern Center for Human Rights Director Stephen Bright. [See: PLN, May 2005 for more on Georgia jails.]
State Counselors Murder Teenager
While violence and malfeasance abound in Georgias adult prisons and jails, its no picnic for the states juvenile prisoners, either.
On April 20, 2005, 13-year-old Travis Parker was killed by counselors at the state-run Appalachian Wilderness Camp in the North Georgia Mountains. The counselors held the boy face down on the ground for at least 90 minutes, and denied him his asthma inhaler throughout the ordeal.
Travis was placed in a full basket restraint a hold so unsafe it has been banned by the Juvenile Justice Department after he angrily confronted a staff member for withholding food as punishment. Travis was restrained by at least three counselors at a time, said witnesses. He eventually stopped breathing.
Counselors Mathew Desing, Ryan Chapman, Paul Binford, Torbin Vining, Johnny Farris and Phillip Elliot were indicted on felony murder charges after a medical examiner ruled Travis death a homicide. This is all based on the criminal negligence or reckless conduct of these individuals, said White County District Attorney Stan Gunter. It was due to the restraint, and how they applied it that has led to these charges. Felony murder charges, which can bring sentences of up to life in prison, are brought in cases where deaths occur during the commission of a felony. The felony in this case was child cruelty.
The Appalachian Wilderness Camp, which accepts children age 6 to 17, is one of two operated by the state Department of Human Resources. The Juvenile Justice Department has about 20 children at the camp, which has a capacity of 50.
Parker had been sent to the camp for hitting his grandmother and threatening her with a knife. Even so, family attorney Thomas Cuffie said the boy and his grandmother had a loving relationship. Cuffie said that when the boys grandmother, Golden Griffin, saw him on life support in the hospital, she suspected he had been severely beaten. He had considerable swelling, knots, and lacerations about his body, said Cuffie. They imposed a form of punishment that resulted in his death.
Ironically, if convicted, the counselors who killed Travis may experience similar abuse firsthand if they are sentenced to time in the GDOC.
Sources: Atlanta-Journal Constitution, MaconTelegraph.com, CNN.com