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March Madness in Georgia Prisons

by Matt Clarke

March 2007 was an unusually bloody month in Georgia prisons, with three murders of prisoners by other prisoners and one severe beating of a mentally ill, handcuffed prisoner by guards.

Since 2005 there have been five homicides in the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC). Three of them occurred in March 2007, according to DOC spokesperson Yolanda Thompson. Thompson added that the murders, which occurred at different prisons, appear to be unrelated to each other or to a systemic problem in the DOC, such as understaffing.

On March 4, Douglas Wren was murdered at Costal State Prison; his death was followed by the killings of Robert Hollis at Georgia State Prison on March 11, and Paul William Phillips at Calhoun State Prison on March 27.
Phillips, 53, who was serving 60 years for aggravated child molestation, and another prisoner were attacked by a third prisoner at the 1,244-bed, Level 5 Calhoun State Prison. Level 5 indicates a close-security facility, one step below maximum-security. The other prisoner with Phillips was injured in the assault and required hospitalization. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) is investigating the incident.

As of April 2007 the DOC had 52,792 prisoners, including 7,000 serving life sentences and 8,000 with mental illnesses. Approximately 60% of the DOC's population is considered violent. However, prisoner-on-prisoner violence is not the only kind of brutality occurring in the state's prison system. In the November 2006 issue of PLN we reported the conviction of DOC guards for assaulting prisoners. On March 23, 2007, five more guards were fired or demoted for beating prisoner Michael Brown at the Georgia State Prison in January 2007, or for covering up the incident by falsifying reports.

Further, on March 21, 2007 at the Phillips State Prison, mentally ill DOC prisoner Bryan T. Graham was handcuffed while being escorted from the shower by female guard Sahirah Muhammad. He allegedly slipped the handcuffs from behind him to the front and used them to attack Muhammad, cutting her forehead. Muhammad called for help and Graham was subdued by two other guards. Their report claimed that Graham hit his head on some railings and the floor, which caused cuts above his right eye and on his head.

Graham's mother, Robin Graham, said DOC officials told her that Bryan had a collapsed lung, cracked rib and other internal injuries. She claims the DOC failed to properly treat her son's mental illness and used excessive force to subdue him while he was still handcuffed. The incident is being investigated by internal affairs, according to DOC spokesperson Thompson.

When asked why it took so much force to subdue a handcuffed prisoner, Thompson applied spin, asking, "Why does a guy in handcuffs use [them] to assault an officer?"

"It's disappointing," said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). "Because an institution like Phillips is really a specialty institution. All the staff is supposed to be trained in dealing with mentally ill people and how best to deal with them without hurting the staff and the inmate. If the fellow was handcuffed, that certainly is a cause for great concern." The SCHR has sued the state over treatment of mentally ill prisoners at Phillips, one of the state's few prisons with a mental health unit.

Graham has since been transferred to the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, a higher security facility where dangerous prisoners are housed. According to Thompson he will be criminally charged with attacking Muhammad. A separate incident of a guard assaulting a handcuffed prisoner at Calhoun State Prison on March 15 was also reported, without further details.

The spate of violence in the DOC during March 2007 was brought to the attention of Governor Sonny Perdue. "The governor is waiting to see the GBI's reports," stated Dan McLagan, communication director for the governor's office.

Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Albany Herald, Cox News Service

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