Prisons are designed to be closed institutions, cut off from the rest of the world. Contraband cell phones, however, are opening them up and exposing the reality of what happens behind the walls. When Demetria Harris saw a photo of her son, incarcerated at the Burruss Correctional Training Center (BCTC) in Forsyth, Georgia, she was horrified.
The picture, posted online in late March 2015, had a caption that read, “When you disrespect the Nation, it brings nothing but pain and suffering.” The term “Nation” was a reference to the Gangsta Disciples gang, also known as “GD Nation.”
In the photo, Harris’ son, Cortez Berry, then 17 years old, had a swollen eye and was hunched down with a makeshift leash around his neck held by one of two prisoners standing menacingly behind him. Harris had learned of the picture and her son’s beating when a friend told her the photo, uploaded by BCTC prisoners using an illicit cell phone, was circulating on Facebook.
By the beginning of April 2015 the picture of Berry had gone viral, attracting nationwide media attention and the interest of such high-profile individuals as Reverend Al Sharpton. Shortly following the publication of the photo, a number of vigils in support of Berry took place in Augusta.
“No one deserves this,” said Harris. “They’re not being protected. I don’t care what they’re there for, they still need to be protected.”
Berry told an aunt, Shavondria Wright, that he had been jumped by ten other prisoners, beaten and choked unconscious. “Pretty much, they left him there for dead,” said Wright.
At the time of the incident, just before Berry’s eighteenth birthday, he had been approached by GD Nation members and asked to join the gang. The beating was the result of his refusal.
“The [Gangsta Disciples] came in and told him that since he was turning 18, he might as well join the gang, because you about to go to the other side,” said Wright, referring to Berry’s imminent transfer to a BCTC unit that holds adult prisoners.
The incident occurred at 3:15 p.m., but guards did not check on Berry until 9:45 p.m. that night, she stated. Although prison personnel were slow to respond and, according to Harris, never notified Berry’s family about the incident, others heard of the beating through phone calls from the prisoners who committed the assault.
According to Connie Kennedy, the mother of Berry’s girlfriend, her daughter learned of the attack when she received multiple phone calls from prisoners demanding protection money to ensure Berry’s safety.
Prison officials placed the unit where the photo was taken on lockdown. Following the incident, Berry, who is serving an 8½-year sentence for aggravated battery, robbery and theft of a motor vehicle, was put in protective custody and transferred from BCTC to the maximum-security Smith State Prison. The two gang members in the photo who had allegedly assaulted him were also transferred to other facilities.
According to a July 2014 report by the Southern Center for Human Rights, Smith State Prison is “perhaps the most dangerous prison in the state,” with 21% of the state’s prisoner homicides occurring at that facility from 2010 through 2014.
Berry’s family believes the transfer was in retaliation for their cooperation with the news media and speaking out about the incident.
Gwendolyn Hogan, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said that two guards who were on duty at the time Berry was beaten had resigned. She added the matter was still under investigation, as is the ongoing issue of contraband cell phones.
As stated in a media release issued at the time of the incident by Georgia prison officials, “The Department does not allow inmates to have access to cell phones, as possession of such contraband is deemed highly illegal. Introduction of cell phones into our facilities is a nationwide issue the Corrections system is facing. The Department continuously works to utilize extensive resources to combat this issue. We take very seriously our mission of protecting the public and running safe and secure facilities.”
In early 2016, a bill was introduced in the Georgia legislature, HB 874, to make smuggling cell phones into correctional facilities a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison. The bill would also make using a contraband cell phone for gang activity a felony that carries a prison term of two to 20 years. The legislation passed and was signed into law in May 2016.
With respect to ongoing violence in Georgia prisons, eight facilities were placed on lockdown in June 2016 after fights broke out at Smith State Prison that sent 16 prisoners to an outside hospital, and a prisoner at Calhoun State Prison, Joshua Brooks, was beaten to death on June 10, 2016. Both incidents were reportedly gang-related. Three prisoners – Wesley Adams, Undrea Burley and Demetrius Smith – and a prison guard, Shakera Burns, were arrested and charged with Brooks’ murder.
Prison Legal News has previously reported on high levels of violence in Georgia’s prison system. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.1].
Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, www.dailymail.co.uk, www.wrdw.com, www.sandrarose.com, www.chronicle.augusta.com, www.41nbc.com
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