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Millions Paid in Mississippi Jail Deaths; Ten Guards Sentenced for Abuses; Corruption Continues

“The house always wins,” Warden Don Cabana proclaimed to the Sun Herald, a Mississippi newspaper, in July 2007. However, Harrison County, home of the Harrison County Adult Detention Center (ADC), has agreed to pay $3.5 million to the family of Jessie Lee Williams, Jr., who was brutally murdered at the hands of ADC guards – which sounds like a loss to everyone involved.

ADC Sgt. Ryan Michael Teel was convicted in Williams’ beating death and received two life sentences. Nine other jail guards pleaded guilty and received various terms of incarceration ranging from 4 months on house arrest to 4 years in prison for their roles in Williams’ death and other abuses at the ADC. Former Harrison Co. Sheriff George Payne, Jr. finally apologized to Williams’ family 17 months after his torturous death, just after the settlement was announced. The murder of Jessie Williams and the systemic pattern of abuses at the ADC are indicative of a much larger problem of brutality, corruption and malfeasance at Mississippi county jails.

Williams, 40, was a kind, slender man with seven children, six of whom were still minors when he died. He had a record of non-serious arrests and had been a trustee at the jail before. Kitchen Supervisor Madeline Dedeaux recalled that “Jessie respected everybody, he kissed those officers’ butts, running around like a slave whenever they asked him to do something. I cried, I fell apart, when I found out he had died.”

Williams was arrested for simple assault and disturbing the peace on February 4, 2006. According to eye witnesses, while standing against a wall in the ADC’s booking area, Williams stepped away from the wall and was “slammed” back by Teel and then again by ADC guard Regina Rhodes, who Dedeaux described as “Teel’s sidekick.” What happened next – as witnessed by male and female prisoners, other jail guards, a 14-year-old Gulfport high school student at the jail for a school project, and five ADC cameras – is an object lesson for corrections “professionals” in what should never be done to another human being in their custody and care.

Beyond Teel’s large size and propensity for violence, the arsenal at his disposal included handcuffs, shackles, a Taser, restraining blankets, a restraining chair with immobilization straps, and a “spit bag” normally used to prevent prisoners from spitting on guards, not as a torture device.

While being booked, Williams’ handcuffs were removed and he was ordered to remove his shoes. Teel then kicked Williams in the chest as he was trying to comply. Williams allegedly “charged at [Teel] like a linebacker playing football,” according to witness Paul McBee, although a videotape of the incident shows no aggressive action by Williams. The pair went to the floor, with Williams hitting his head against the wall. Several guards subdued Williams while Teel and Rhodes repeatedly punched and kicked him about the head, back and chest. One Taser shot ended Williams’ resistance, if indeed he was resisting, when Teel jammed the Taser into Williams’ back. “I could see him firing it several seconds; I saw blue sparks,” reported McBee, who still wakes up hearing Williams screaming “I quit ... please stop,” over and over.

Williams was then handcuffed, hogtied, punched a few more times and dropped head-first on the floor, blood dripping from his mouth, with one ADC guard calling it “crack-head spit,” according to witness Irvin Watson. Like McBee, Watson said he is plagued with nightmares from the brutality he witnessed. Although the beating was already a gross example of excessive force – force beyond that necessary to subdue Williams – it escalated into torture as the sadistic Teel worked his way through his arsenal.

While Williams was subdued and restrained, Gulfport police officer Kelly Knight handed Teel some pepper spray. Teel sprayed Williams through a spit mask that had been placed over his face. Williams was then rolled up in a restraining blanket, picked up “like a suitcase and carried to the restraining chair,” McBee said. Teel “threw him down twice on the way, the right side of his head hitting the concrete floor.” No one tried to stop Teel.

According to Dedeaux, at some point Teel pulled a sheet around Williams’ head and cinched it so tight she “could see the inmate’s facial features.” Dedeaux wrote that Teel threatened to break Williams’ neck, poured water over the sheet over Williams’ face, and made a racial comment about “people like you.” Jeremy Powell, the teenage high school student, testified that Teel told Williams “I hope you don’t drown.”

Once in the restraining chair, known to ADC prisoners as “the torture chair” or “the devil’s chair,” Williams was taken to another location where witnesses recalled hearing sounds of someone being hit. Video footage showed the physical abuse continued while Williams was strapped in the chair. When Williams was returned to the booking area, still in the restraint chair, he appeared lifeless and unresponsive. “His fate was sealed before the ambulance arrived,” noted Michael Crosby, Williams’ family attorney. “I thought he was dead then,” McBee said. “A nurse came and tried to clean him up before the ambulance got there. She seemed real upset.” An unnamed female prisoner exclaimed, “God is going to punish you all.”

Williams arrived at Gulfport Memorial Hospital in a coma, was declared brain dead two days later on February 6, 2006, and life support was removed at his family’s request. The cover-up began immediately. The jail’s phone system for prisoners was shut off for several days. False reports were made and stories were synchronized. Sheriff George Payne announced that Williams had a history of fighting with police, and that guards at the jail “had to fight him.” The Sheriff further said, “They pepper-sprayed him, and it didn’t slow him down. It cranked him up even higher, which it does when they’re on crack or meth or something like that.”

Williams, however, tested negative for drugs and had a blood alcohol level low enough to drive in Mississippi. The secrecy continued for months as attorney Crosby and the Sun Herald fought in court to gain access to information that should have been public in the first place, including the videotape of Williams’ death. The Sun Herald’s request for the video was initially denied by federal Magistrate Judge John M. Roper, who stated “The right to a fair trial [for the guards] trumps all the First Amendment rights you may have.”
(The video was later obtained and posted on the Internet). Meanwhile, both Teel and Rhodes filed for worker’s compensation for injuries they sustained in the process of murdering Williams.

When Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove declared Williams’ death a homicide “by means of blunt injuries at the hands of another,” the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) and the FBI stepped in to investigate, along with the local district attorney and the U.S. Attorneys office. While critics decried the months of secrecy and lack of public confidence, the investigation was expanded to include other assaults and eventually led to 11 indictments against ADC guards and supervisors.

It took Williams’ death to expose the atrocities at ADC. While hundreds of prisoners had complained of brutal treatment at the jail for years, the public has a misconceived perception of prisoners that undermines their credibility. It should not take a dead body to raise awareness. Nevertheless, given the credibility problems among the prisoners who witnessed Williams’ death, it is no wonder that when the video of the beating was played at Teel’s trial, it was Jeremy Powell, the 14-year-old witness, who was chosen to describe the incident – truth straight from the mouth of babes.

Teel, characterized by fellow guards as “the conspiracy” ringleader, was known to physically abuse prisoners. He was convicted of violating Williams’ civil rights by causing his death, conspiring to violate other prisoners’ civil rights, and obstructing justice by falsifying reports in an attempted cover-up (the ADC was required to submit reports to the U.S. Department of Justice under the terms of a 1995 consent decree). Teel was sentenced on November 1, 2007 to two terms of life imprisonment for Williams’ death and the conspiracy, plus another 20 years for falsifying reports. He was further ordered to pay $6,461 to Williams’ estate for funeral expenses. In the year before Williams was killed, Teel had been involved in 11 of 22 brutal assaults in the jail’s booking area.

Ryan Teel is the son of Wes Teel, a former chancery court judge who was tried for bribery in 2005, though the jury could not reach a verdict. Fearing a biased jury due to his son’s murderous actions, Wes Teel asked that the retrial be held in a different jurisdiction. Ryan Teel’s trial was moved to Hattiesburg, while Wes Teel was tried and convicted in a second trial in Jackson in March 2007; he was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison. In a strange twist, one of Wes Teel’s co-defendants in the bribery case was former circuit court judge John Whitfield, who was represented by Michael Crosby. Crosby and Whitfield were co-counsel in the lawsuit filed against Ryan Teel and others over Williams’ death.

Tried alongside Teel was the highest-ranking ADC defendant, Captain James Ricky Gaston, who was in charge of the booking area. Gaston was acquitted. He shook hands with the federal prosecutors, then demanded his job back afterwards. Based on eyewitness statements, the indictment against Gaston alleged that he had assaulted prisoners at the jail and encouraged others to “needlessly” use force against prisoners.

As with many gangs of abusive guards, such as the infamous Cowboys at USP Florence, once exposed the group quickly imploded. Breaking the “code of silence” was Teel’s sidekick, Regina Rhodes, the only other guard convicted in connection with Williams’ murder. She pleaded guilty to violating Williams’ civil rights and falsifying reports, and was sentenced on November 5, 2007 to 18 months in prison and three years supervised release. Rhodes testified against both Teel and Gaston.

Shortly before trial, two of Teel’s co-defendants also took plea bargains. Karle Stolze pleaded to conspiracy to deprive prisoners of their civil rights between February 8, 2005 and March 8, 2006, and was sentenced on November 5, 2007 to 15 months in prison and two years supervised release. Daniel Evans pled likewise, and was sentenced the following day to three years in prison.

Other guards who pleaded guilty and cooperated included Morgan Lee Thompson, whose assault on 54-year-old prisoner Only Al-Khidhr on October 5, 2005 was called “barbaric” by the judge, who sentenced Thompson to four years in federal prison and two years supervised release. Thompson, who had hung the mug shot of Al-Khidhr’s bloody, beaten, swollen face on the wall as a trophy, admitted to personally assaulting over 100 prisoners, bragging about the assaults and witnessing dozens more. He also falsified a report related to Williams’ death, and testified at the trial of Teel and Gaston.

ADC guard Thomas Preston Wills had only one week of training and three days as a field officer before he began full-time duties at the jail. His lack of experience, however, did not excuse his complicity in more than 100 assaults and observation of over 100 other acts of brutality by his co-workers, who bragged about their actions. “There’s people still working out there that are 10 times worse than they’ve made some of us out to be,” he complained after he pled guilty. Wills was sentenced on November 6, 2007 to a prison term of 41 months.

Sgt. Dedri Yulon Caldwell was sentenced on November 6, 2007 to two years in prison for conspiracy, as was William Jeffery Priest, who admitted to participating in abuses from August 1, 2004 to January 28, 2006. He received a 21-month sentence. Brodrick Fulton pleaded guilty in the beating of a prisoner identified as L.M. in a shower room in August 2001 (many victims were identified in the investigation only by their initials). L.M. suffered a broken jaw in the attack. Fulton was sentenced on November 6, 2007 to 33 months.

The most lenient sentence imposed was on Timothy Brandon Moore, who received four months on house arrest and five years probation for falsifying a report. After Al-Khidhr was shot with a Taser in the jail’s shower area and assaulted by Teel and Thompson, Moore quit mid-shift and walked out, actions that prompted the judge to say that Moore had demonstrated the “advanced trait of conscience and humanity.” Then again, he still falsified the report.

Except for Teel, who was sent to prison in November 2007, the other former ADC guards began serving their sentences in January 2008. By February they were in federal prisons scattered across the country. Although over two years have passed since Williams died, and ten jail guards have been convicted, the Department of Justice has stated its investigation into abuses at the ADC is ongoing.

As with Williams’ death, nearly half of the cases brought by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) involve prosecutions for official misconduct. Since 2000 the DOJ has convicted 50 percent more corrections officials than during the 1990s. In fiscal year 2007 there were 189 such convictions – a record number in the division’s 50-year history.

Numerous lawsuits resulted from the ADC investigation. Property owners in Harrison County will pay over $3.00 per person per year for the next 15 years just to cover the county’s $2.5 million settlement in the Williams case (the other $1 million will be paid from the county’s insurance policy). Undisclosed settlements were reached with Health Assurance LLC, the private medical provider for the ADC, and the City of Gulfport. The American Correctional Association was dismissed as a defendant in the suit; the ACA had performed its perfunctory accreditation of the jail which was later revoked, stating they had not been informed of the abuses. But then, the ACA never asks about or investigates abuses and some of the worst prisons and jails in America have paid their accreditation fees and are duly “accredited.” See: Estate of Williams v. Harrison County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:06-cv-196-LG-JMR.

Kasey Dion Alves sued over his beating by Teel and other guards the month before Williams was killed; Alves was assaulted after he looked into a holding cell containing female prisoners. Following a severe beating by Teel, he was left in a restraining chair for seven or eight hours, suffering acute kidney failure and nerve damage. While Alves was restrained Teel wrapped a sheet around his head so tight that his facial features showed, then poured water over the sheet – a technique similar to “water boarding.” The suit is pending. Unlike the water boarding torture carried out by the CIA and military torturers at Guantanamo, the water boarding torture of American prisoners in American prisons and jails results in little media outrage. See: Alves v. Harrison County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:06-cv-00912-LG-JMR.

Another lawsuit is pending from Roderick Miller, who requested his migraine headache medication but was instead punched in the chest by Teel “with extreme force.” Miller then fell over a bench and hit his head against a wall. Teel reportedly yelled “This ought to help your headache,” then slammed Miller on the floor, dropping his knee onto Miller’s back while Rhodes began kicking him. Miller sat through Teel’s trial and was incensed at seeing the guards come forward to testify, “not because they felt bad at the time, but because they were caught.” See: Miller v. Harrison County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:07-cv-00541-LG-JMR.

Marguerite Carruba sued over an assault by ADC guards Stolze and Priest, who then denied her medical treatment. Carruba had tapped on a holding cell window and requested her right to make a phone call.

Bobby J. Golden filed suit claiming ADC guard Lee Oatis Jackson and others had beaten and pepper-sprayed him on February 26, 2005. The next day, Jackson took Golden to an outside area to beat him again. See: Golden v. Harrison County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:06-cv-01006-LG-JMR.

Former prisoner Frances Winn has also sued the ADC, claiming she was subjected to mental and physical abuse; denied food, water and medical treatment; taunted by jailors; and held for more than 15 hours after her bond was posted on April 16, 2005. See: Winn v. Harrison County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01019-LG-JMR.

Johnny O’Bryant sued Stolze, Sheriff Payne and Warden Cabana after Stolze beat and choked him when he inquired about his missing eyeglasses on September 25, 2006. His suit was dismissed without prejudice on March 17, 2008 after he was released from the ADC and failed to attend court hearings. See: O’Bryant v. Harrison County ADC, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:07-cv-00477-LG-RHW.

Al-Khidhr also sued, over his October 2005 beating by Teel and Thompson. See: Al-Khidhr v. Harrison County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:07-cv-001223-LG-RHW. More lawsuits by other former ADC prisoners are likely, according to attorneys who had filed over 15 court actions by the end of 2007.

Former Sheriff Payne supported his abusive guards, claimed ignorance, and refused numerous times to appear before the county commission. He has since been replaced by Melvin Brisolara. Likewise, former ADC Warden Dianne Gatson-Riley was replaced in August 2006 by Don Cabana, who actually appeared before the city council. Although Cabana apparently believes the “house always wins,” the county and city will pay millions for the abuses that occurred at the ADC, while millions more will be spent to repair the dilapidated facility.

Cabana is now trying to get the jail’s population below 700 to avoid losing the county work facility, which provides an estimated $2 million a year in free prisoner slave labor to the surrounding area. Meanwhile, an effort to “fix” the jail’s problems by privatizing the facility is being studied, and web cameras have been installed to let the public see inside.

While Harrison County’s problems are grave, other Mississippi counties are mired in similar troubles. A sampling from some of Mississippi’s 82 counties includes DeSoto County jailer John Thomas, who was caught smuggling drugs into the jail in early 2007, and guard Stephen Sullivan, who smuggled drugs and a cell phone into the George County jail. In Greenwood, Mississippi, CCA guard Robert Earl Hannon, who said he did not like potatoes, had a large portion of spuds delivered to him at the jail for lunch, raising suspicions. Hidden inside the meal was $200 and an ounce of marijuana.

Some incidents are far more serious. For example, Amber Miller, 26, has filed a wrongful death claim over the death of her infant while she was held in the Greene County jail.
According to the lawsuit, guards refused to help and threatened to mace Miller if she didn’t stop screaming. She was in labor and extreme pain at the time; the guards were told that Miller’s baby was being born and it was a breech birth. Instead of summoning help, they ordered other female prisoners to spread Miller’s legs and turn her around so they could see the baby, which was partially protruding from Miller’s vagina. The guards then ordered Miller turned so male prisoners in another cellblock could “see what a woman had to endure while birthing a baby.”

Only after a male prisoner called for help was Miller transported to Greene County Hospital, though her baby had already died. Greene County Sheriff Stanley McLeod stated that jail staff had “followed all procedures.”

Several former female prisoners have filed suit over systematic brutality at the Hancock County jail, where they were beaten and forced to have sex with guards, sometimes in return for cigarettes or drugs and sometimes to stay alive. The jail was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, requiring prisoners to be housed at the Pearl River County jail. Dozens of Pearl County prisoners are now claiming they were also abused.

Six prisoners have filed formal complaints that are being reviewed by the FBI and MBI. The prisoners claim they were tied to a chair, beaten by guards, and deprived of necessities such as blankets, toothbrushes, toilet paper and medical care. Another dozen prisoners told judges about abuses at the jail during court hearings. Chief Deputy Julie Flowers said she was shocked at such allegations. After the abuses were exposed, a number of guards resigned.

In Grenada County, Correctional Services Corporation (CSC) wanted the county to take back its jail, a good indication that privatization is not a better way to “fix” problems. CSC said the facility was too expensive to operate. This was just two days after Kenneth Kendall was beaten to death by other jail prisoners while serving a 30-day sentence for failure to pay a fine. Jay Westfaul, the attorney who sued on behalf of Kendall’s family, said “Jails and prisons should be run by government entities not private corporations out to make a profit.” The lawsuit resulted in an undisclosed settlement. See: Kendall v. Correctional Services Corporation, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:05-cv-00040-MPM-JAD.

Despite spending $500,000 on repairs at the Hinds County jail, Michael Burnley was severely beaten when another prisoner, John Earl Kennedy, broke out of his cell and attacked him. Hinds County had been embroiled in lawsuits over shoddy construction at the facility. While county officials settled with contractors, the payments apparently were not used to fix the jail’s problems. Meanwhile, Burnley, now paralyzed from the neck down, was released early so the county could avoid paying his medical expenses. County officials didn’t get off free, though; on April 21, 2008, they agreed to pay $3 million to settle Burnley’s subsequent federal lawsuit. [See: PLN, Aug. 2008, p.13].

In June 2007, Jeffery Jerome Leggett, a mentally ill prisoner, hung himself after being put in the wrong cell at the Hinds County jail. Leggett’s death was indicative of a prevalent problem at county jails, which house dozens of mentally ill prisoners awaiting bed space at state mental institutions.

Lincoln County Sheriff Wiley Calcote was charged in August 2006 with a 15-count indictment that included nine counts of embezzlement, two counts of tampering with a witness, one count of wire fraud, one count of insurance fraud and two counts of failure to confine his prisoners. He returned to work the next day. The Lincoln County jail was paid to house state prisoners, who then were able to obtain unauthorized passes to leave the facility. Mississippi officials pulled both state prisoners and funding from the jail. The sheriff later resigned as part of a plea agreement, pleading guilty to a single count of embezzlement for taking 321 gallons of diesel fuel the county had received after Hurricane Katrina. He was placed on two years probation and ordered to pay $895 in restitution.

In Scott County, jail guards Mae Graham and Debbie Graham took over $5,000 in bribes to ensure that certain prisoners remained on trustee status. Former guard Terry Campbell has sued the county, claiming he was fired because he reported misconduct by other guards. Madison County public defender and former judge Walter Wood received a 60-day jail sentence plus fines for having sex with one of his clients in a jail conference room. Cameras have since been installed to prevent such unauthorized attorney-client visits.

The Harrison County jail was in the news again in January 2008, when four prisoners escaped. Mark Kee Brown, Timothy S. Haynie, Dustin D. Griffin and William Arevalo broke out of the facility on Jan. 27; all were captured within two days. Soon after he was caught, Haynie was found dead in his cell, hanging from a sprinkler head.

Common themes in Mississippi jails include overcrowding, abuse and corruption, dilapidated facilities, court-ordered oversight, staff shortages and high turnover, mentally ill prisoners, suicides, escapes, sexual abuse by guards, and insufficient budgets allocated to jail operations. Deaths and human suffering should not be required to raise enough attention to fix these obvious and ongoing problems. But apparently they are.

Sources: Bad Cop News, Clarion Ledger, djournal.com, gulflive.com, Hattiesburg American, Meridian Star, Sun Herald, wlox.com, insurancejournal.com, foxnews.com

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Related legal cases

Estate of Williams v. Harrison County

Alves v. Harrison County

Miller v. Harrison County

Golden v. Harrison County

Winn v. Harrison County

O’Bryant v. Harrison County ADC

Al-Khidhr v. Harrison County

Kendall v. Correctional Services Corporation


 

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