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Georgia Medical Prison Rife with Dysfunction, Abuse and Dilapidated Conditions

by David Reutter

Poor sanitation, asbestos contamination, leaky roofs, inadequate health care, the loss of a top doctor frustrated with it all – those are just some of the problems that have plagued Georgia’s Augusta State Medical Prison (ASMP). Plus incidents of brutality by guards.

“These prisoners are often selected for abuse because they suffer from mental illness and have difficulty reporting assaults or being taken seriously when they do,” a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in August 2017 claims.

Photos of ASMP showing “garbage bags and empty boxes filling portable Dumpsters and spilling onto the floor” – even in a hallway outside the operating room – were obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October 2017.

“At times,” the newspaper reported, “the bags almost reached the ceiling.”

Dr. Mary Sherryl Alston, ASMP’s medical director, wrote that the trash drew insects “of all varieties” into the operating room, and that during procedures mosquitoes had to be swatted away. The smell of garbage was noticeable.

“I am incredulous that such a discussion is still needed to address the problem within a facility that provides health care,” Dr. Alston wrote. “Simple solution: stop placing garbage by the OR now.”

Weeks later, however, that solution had not been implemented.

“Meanwhile, this practice continues,” Alston wrote in an email widely distributed to officials with the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) and Georgia Correctional HealthCare (GCH). “It is an unacceptable practice and it needs to change immediately; no discussion.”

Yet photos showed trash was still piling up outside the operating room with an unknown substance leaking onto the floor.

Structural problems at the 34-year-old ASMP, which houses more than 1,300 prisoners, also create health hazards. There are roof leaks in the operating room, recovery rooms, dental clinic, pharmacy and pill-call locations, resulting in water damage and mold – including in areas where sanitary practices are essential to prevent the risk of infection and illness.

Some of the leaks noted in 2016 inspection reports still have not been repaired. A leaking sink in the dialysis center was mentioned in previous reports, too, said inspector Jeff Speer. The failure to inspect, test and maintain fire extinguishers to ensure they work properly was another safety violation noted in reports from 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Once those problems were publicized, ASMP lost both of its senior administrators. Warden Scott Wilkes was assigned to another state prison and replaced with Ted Philbin, while hospital administrator Randy Brown retired after secret tapes he made of conversations with other prison officials came to light.

GDOC Assistant Commissioner for Health Services Randy Sauls said the leadership changes and maintenance improvements would remedy the problems at ASMP. In December 2017, he began making weekly trips to the facility to personally inspect remediation efforts.

Two months later, GCH’s contractor discovered asbestos floor tiles, forcing the operating room to close for two months in March 2018. Medical procedures were moved to public hospitals, causing some delays in prisoner treatment.

In addition to the operating room, asbestos was also discovered in a nursing unit. But nearly three weeks later, nurses at ASMP said they had not been formally notified.

“With regards to the recently found Asbestos, not once have we been formally addressed or notified by any member of our Management team that Asbestos is present in our environment and to what extent,” they wrote on March 21, 2018.

“Asbestos, in general, if it’s undisturbed, it doesn’t bother you,” said David Smith, GDOC’s acting director of maintenance. “That’s why frequently all you do is seal it.”

But Linda Reinstein, president and CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said she felt “deeply concerned” by the presence of asbestos at the prison.

“The only way anyone is now going to feel safe is if there’s an inspection throughout the entire building to identify additional asbestos-containing materials,” said Reinstein, a widow who started her non-profit after losing her husband to mesothelioma, the type of cancer resulting from asbestos exposure.

ASMP’s problems are not just maintenance-related, however, and the leadership change was not enough to keep Dr. Timothy Young from quitting in January 2018 after 16 years on the job. He served as medical director of the outpatient facility at the prison hospital, where he saw urgent care cases and treated prisoners from other GDOC facilities.

In his resignation letter, Young cited not only poor maintenance at ASMP but also the tolerance of substandard health care by management, as well as safety concerns for himself and other medical staff members – all of which he brought to the attention of ASMP and GDOC officials, who not only ignored but also retaliated against him.

Dr. Young first became worried about patient care while taking part in reviews of prisoner deaths at ASMP. Though misdiagnosis or neglect were often involved, he said, no doctors were fired or even disciplined.

PLN previously reported on one case he cited – Pulaski State Prison’s former medical director, Yvon Nazaire, whose previous censure in New York, where he was placed on probation for three years, went undiscovered by GDOC officials. During his tenure in Georgia, nine prisoners at the women’s facility died under suspicious circumstances. Dr. William Kanto, Vice President for Clinical Outreach at Augusta University, of which GCH is a branch, later ruled three of those deaths were the result of substandard care. Nazaire was fired in 2015 but not disciplined by the state medical board because his license had expired. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.18].

In a deposition in a lawsuit over the death of a prisoner under Dr. Nazaire’s care, former GCH medical director Edward Bailey acknowledged that he was aware of Nazaire’s disciplinary record in New York but didn’t consider it serious because he didn’t read the medical board’s full report. He also testified that GCH had long used temporary physicians without checking their backgrounds before they began working.

“In my 16 years,” Dr. Young wrote, “I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the bad outcomes I’ve seen. And I’ve never seen one physician disciplined.”

Young’s letter of resignation also noted his dissatisfaction with both GDOC and GCH after he fired a Physician Assistant (PA) who left a stroke victim waiting two hours for treatment. The PA, who was contracted through a private employment agency, went on to work at another GDOC prison.

“How does that happen?” Young asked. “Good question.”

Then there were his security concerns, prompted by unsupervised prisoners roaming the facility, which Young reported both to then-Warden Wilkes and GCH’s statewide medical director, Dr. Billy Nichols.

Nothing was done, even after Young reported finding himself alone in an elevator with three prisoners. When he said they shouldn’t be there unsupervised, one replied, “What are you going to do about it?”

Young said his “awakening” occurred when two GDOC transport guards were shot and killed in June 2016 by a pair of escaping prisoners. [See: PLN, Mar. 2018, p.50]. He gathered ASMP staff and asked them to document security problems, eventually forwarding about 100 pages to Georgia newspapers. He also learned of the operating room’s poor condition – trash, insects and a door lock that had been broken for four months.

In October 2017, Young filed a complaint with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two months later, Dr. Alston told him that GCH would be reevaluating the need for his job position.

The very next day, when a guard refused to bring a stabbing victim from lockdown to change his wound dressing, Dr. Young attempted to get Warden Philbin to intervene – only to be stalled by the warden’s secretary for two hours.

“I’m the outpatient clinic medical director,” he said incredulously, “and I’ve got a secretary telling me I can’t talk to the warden?”

Young wrote his resignation letter the next day, distributing copies to GDOC and Dr. Nichols at GCH. An investigation into his claims of retaliation has been opened, according to an official at Augusta University.

As for allegations of prisoner abuse at ASMP, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed a lawsuit in federal court in August 2017 on behalf of three prisoners.

Christopher Varner, a schizophrenic with bipolar disorder, organic brain damage and a severe form of diabetes, was allegedly choked unconscious while handcuffed in 2014. Eugene Griggs, who also suffers from schizophrenia and uses a wheelchair, was reportedly slammed against a wall by guard Verneal Evans in July 2015. And prisoner Cameron Maddox, another schizophrenic assigned to an assisted living unit at ASMP, was handcuffed when two guards allegedly punched, kicked and slammed him headfirst into a wall in 2016.

Sarah Geraghty, a SCHR managing attorney, said the three prisoners filed grievances, which were almost “always summarily rejected without investigation.”

The complaint names a dozen current and former ASMP officials and guards as defendants, including guard Jerry Beard. On November 18, 2013, Beard allegedly pepper sprayed and beat handcuffed prisoner Brandon Bonner, hitting him so hard that he sought treatment for a broken hand after the incident.

“The use of force against [the prisoners] was not random or unforeseeable,” the complaint states. “It was part of a widespread, deeply entrenched and ongoing custom among Augusta State Medical Prison correctional officers.”

To bolster the point, the lawsuit named Sgt. John Williams, though not as a defendant. In 2009, Williams allegedly assaulted Charles Outlaw, a 25-year-old wheelchair-bound prisoner with multiple sclerosis, who was beaten while handcuffed. The SCHR’s suit remains pending. See: Griggs v. Davis, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00089-JRH-BKE.

In April 2017, Williams and two of the named defendants in the case – ASMP guards Antonio Binns and Justin Washington – pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of deprivation of rights. They were each sentenced to five years’ probation. 

Sources: Augusta Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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Related legal case

Griggs v. Davis