Cover Story: Georgia's deadly prisons

A legal rights advocacy group wants reform, a congressman wants an investigation, and the family of a dead inmate wants answers

Thursday July 24, 2014 04:00 am EDT

On April 29, 2013, around 4:16 p.m., correctional officers entered Detravia Bryant's cell at Ware State Prison, a maximum-security facility just outside Waycross, a South Georgia town a short drive from the Okefenokee Swamp.

There they discovered the 29-year-old west Atlanta native lying on the floor. According to the handwritten incident report, the convicted murderer was not breathing and had no pulse. Quinten Mallery, his cellmate, was placed in restraints and taken to the showers. After staff attempted CPR, Bryant was transported by ambulance to a hospital in Waycross. One hour after prison staff first responded to Bryant's cell, he was pronounced dead.

Corrections officials categorized Bryant's death as a suicide, family members say. It would have been unlike Bryant to take his own life, says his great uncle James Jackson.

"To my knowledge, we've never been told of one family member who's taken their own lives," Jackson says. "In my family, suicide is not only taboo, but what we deem unforgivable. We were all raised that way. You don't take your own life. It's a religious gray area where you just don't know the outcomes."

The family mourned. Bryant's body was transported to Gus Thornhill Funeral Home in East Point to be prepared for an open-casket funeral. According to Jackson, funeral home officials urged the family to come immediately with a camera to document the body. Bryant's lips and eyes were swollen. On his head were two gashes that corresponded to electric plug prongs. According to the death certificate that Jackson says was provided by the funeral home after Bryant's burial, Bryant's body showed evidence of ligature strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head. The certificate listed the cause of death as undetermined.

The family called a lawyer. Shortly thereafter, Jackson says, communications with prison officials stopped.

"They were afraid to talk to me because they knew the body would tell the truth," Jackson says. He and other family members have been calling for answers ever since. They may soon get them.

Bryant is among 33 prisoners and one corrections officer who died inside state prisons since 2010. Between 2001 and 2011, Georgia ranked sixth in the nation for total number of homicides committed in its prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More people were killed in Georgia prisons in 2012 alone than in six other states' correctional facilities during the previous 10 years, says the Southern Center for Human Rights, one of the state's leading nonprofit criminal justice advocates. One prison reported more homicides in one year than all of Pennsylvania's prisons reported in an entire decade. Criminal justice advocates and Congressman Hank Johnson, D-Ga., are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. The Georgia Department of Corrections refuses to offer almost any information on its inner workings — much less on the mysterious death of Bryant.

Sgt. C. Baker Hall was busy working at the Fulton County Jail on Oct. 23, 2009, when he heard that an inmate wanted to speak with him. Six hours later, Bryant came to Hall's office. Nearly two weeks earlier, Bryant had been arrested for theft by taking auto. What police didn't yet know was that the morning of Bryant's arrest for theft, he'd also shot and killed Jeanette Smith outside the West End Church of Christ on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.

"He said that he saw Smith in sic the TV the other day and he has not been able to sleep ever since that and he need sic to tell someone," Hall says in an Atlanta Police Department statement.

According to APD records, Bryant told law enforcement authorities that he'd fronted Smith a hundred dollars' worth of crack. The next morning, Bryant says he noticed Smith's red shopping cart at the church. As he confronted her about repaying him, she raised a stick. Bryant says he shot her in the stomach and then in the head and ran away. Later that day, Bryant's father called the police on his son after seeing him driving an SUV — Bryant didn't own a car or have a license. The police officer who later arrested Bryant said in a statement that he "seemed like he was in a daze, he was out of it, nervous too ... I could tell something else was on his mind."

Church secretary Gayron Johnson, who has attended the church since 1978, recalls Smith as a kind and proud woman who never asked for money and rarely would accept hospitality.

Bryant's jailhouse confession basically guaranteed he would spend the rest of his life behind bars, a footnote to a life marked by frequent run-ins with the law. According to Fulton County Jail records, Bryant had been booked at the Rice Street facility in northwest Atlanta nine times since 2012 for crimes ranging from theft by taking to criminal trespass.

Bryant — his family always called him "D," short for Detravia — is remembered by Jackson as "a happy baby, with a lot of energy — and he kept that energy." But his great uncle also says he could be quiet. "You couldn't get many words out of 'D.'" His brother Travarous Stewart, though, remembers him as outgoing and funny.

In June 2010, a Fulton County jury found Bryant guilty on all counts, including murder. Bryant was sentenced to life in Ware State Prison. Not much can be gleaned about his time at the prison because his inmate institutional files "are not subject to disclosure" under Georgia's Open Records Act. Jackson says Bryant was able to contact him using a contraband cell phone. He said he had been threatened by other inmates, who demanded money.

Bryant was raised by his grandmother Barbara Allen. In April 2013, two Atlanta Police officers visited her and told her to contact Ware State. Jackson says the prison told Allen that Bryant committed suicide. But after seeing his body in the funeral home, the family called a lawyer and requested another autopsy be performed. (A Thornhill Funeral Home employee said the company was advised not to comment to the press by the Bryant family's lawyer at the time.) The body went to the GBI's Panthersville facility for another autopsy. Thus began the more than one-year silence about Bryant's death.

Jackson and family members say Robert Toole — the warden at Ware State when Bryant was found dead — stopped taking his calls after the family received the body, as did the Ware County coroner and other prison staff. About a year after Bryant died, the family had yet to receive his personal belongings from Ware State. The GBI was also tight-lipped, saying it could not comment on an ongoing investigation — though Jackson says an official did categorize the death as "suspicious." The family claims to have heard rumors about what might have contributed to Bryant's death, but with regard to official statements, Bryant's relatives have been kept in the dark.

"We, as a family, we want something done," Jackson says. "We want to blow this thing out of the water. We want to make it public and known. My nephew may not have been the best person in the world but he was not sentenced to death. And whoever took his life at Ware State Prison took it upon himself to try him without judge and jury — and decided amongst himself to take his life."

On the third floor of the Southern Center for Human Rights' Downtown offices, atop a table near the window, staff attorney Sarah Geraghty has stacks and boxes of mail she receives from prisoners and their loved ones. In the letters, they proclaim their innocence, report unsafe conditions in cellblocks, and describe violence by guards and other prisoners. Around 2010, the violence detailed in some letters grew more graphic, prompting Geraghty to start requesting incident reports from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Over the years, she has read official records detailing guards' and prisoners' accounts of violent assaults with makeshift weapons, including two-foot shanks. Last month the SCHR compiled those stories in a 23-page report detailing the rise in Georgia prison violence since 2010. The study reads like a collection of horror stories from third-world prisons, with faulty cell locks, easily available weapons, and cell phones used to manage criminal enterprises and order hits.

Before Glen Evans' transfer to Telfair State Prison in August 2012, his family reportedly warned corrections officials that a specific inmate at the central Georgia facility posed a threat. He was transferred to that person's cellblock anyway and killed 10 minutes after arriving in the dorm. In February 2014, an inmate at Wilcox State Prison in Abbeville was stabbed with a 19-inch machete and lost three of his fingers. One inmate at Coffee Correctional Facility, a private prison in Nicholls, was restrained and burned with bleach.

"I've been here a little over 10 years," Geraghty says. "I've not heard of restraint and torture over a period of hours. We're hearing this more and more. This is new."

SCHR researchers also found that some prisons, such as Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville, lacked adequate guard supervision. On his first day there in October 2012, one prisoner transferred from another facility was choked until unconscious, stuffed in a laundry bag, "stabbed, burned, and beaten repeatedly over three hours." "RAT" was reportedly carved in his forehead with a hot knife. On Sept. 1, 2012, an inmate was pummeled by a group, tied down while scalding water was poured on his groin, and penetrated with a broomstick. "The perpetrators took ransom pictures to send to Robbins' family, but eventually decided to let him go," the report reads. In November 2013 one inmate was strapped down in his cell for two days. In each incident, guards were nowhere to be found.

Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga., near the Tennessee border, until recently suffered from shoddy locks that contributed to more than 33 "incidents" that SCHR flagged between July 2012 and January 2013. According to SCHR's report, those incidents included a guard witnessing an inmate stab another with a piece of metal, an inmate reporting being tied up and beaten by other inmates to the point that he required hospitalization, and another prisoner being stabbed 25 times. SCHR filed a civil rights lawsuit in September 2013 on behalf of the family of a Hays State Prison inmate who died. Owens and other DOC officials are named as defendants.

Georgia's documented history of modern prison violence dates back decades to I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, a best-selling 1930s book by Robert Ellis Burns, a World War I veteran who was imprisoned for a petty crime. In the book he describes deplorable conditions at Georgia correctional facilities. During the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Justice probed Georgia's prison system after several inmates reported being beaten bloody while then-Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner, a political chum of then-Gov. Zell Miller, watched (Garner denied doing so at the time, according to the New York Times).

The new spike of violence in recent years has surprised some prison observers.

Some of this violence can be attributed to gangs, Geraghty says, which "fill an existing security vacuum." In some Georgia prisons, she says, gangs run some prisoner dorm areas, and even help to make decisions over where some new transferred inmates will sleep. Inmates who are rejected are, in prison parlance, "put on the door" and are told they can't stay in the dorm area. But in other instances, the fights and assaults simply stem from packing together people who might be prone to violence or living with mental illness in tight quarters for long periods of time.

So why should the public care about the well-being of persons convicted for vicious crimes when other pressing issues affect innocent people outside the walls? The state's foster childcare system is broken. Even with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, hundreds of thousands of Georgians still lack access to health insurance. Hundreds of thousands of senior citizens living in metro Atlanta don't have access to public transit, potentially cutting them off from the doctor, the pharmacy, and their families.

One basic reason, Geraghty and others argue, is because the state has a responsibility as an employer to provide its employees with a safe working environment, just like factories should make sure equipment is maintained.

"I've had a number of employees who apply for jobs at the Baldwin County Sheriff's Office who want to get out of the prison setting," says Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee, who served on the Corrections Department board 2004-09 and who oversees his central Georgia county's jail. "They think it's a hostile environment, and in certain prisons around the state they question their safety. I've had some people to come work with me and they feel a lot safer and more comfortable working in a county jail than they do in a facility operated by the Department of Corrections or a private prison."

Adds Geraghty: "They have a difficult job. They deal with a lot of difficult people day in and day out. And we have a responsibility to people who work in our prison system to make sure that their work environment is as safe as it can be. And the state has not done that."

Ultimately, however, the reasoning is basic and core to the corrections department's mission — the agency and wardens have a legal responsibility to operate a safe prison and to ensure people convicted of crimes face the punishment handed down by a jury of their peers. But it appears that after the convicted are held responsible for their actions by the criminal justice system, they become inmates who are locked into a rigid environment where vigilantism is allowed to fester.

"The reality is that the prisoners killed weren't issued a death sentence," Johnson says. "They're committed to the protection and control of the Department of Corrections for a term of imprisonment, they should have a guaranteed exit date, and they should be held in a safe environment until that time comes. They should not leave prison minus an eye. They should not leave in a coffin. That wasn't part of the sentence."

Prison conditions also play a role in an inmate's rehabilitation, something Geraghty says has long been "low on the totem pole." Starting in 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal began an ambitious and widely applauded multiyear program to reform the criminal justice system. Primarily a measure aimed at lowering Georgia's approximately $1 billion annual prison bill — at least that's how Deal pitched it to lawmakers — the initiative included alternatives to sentencing, such as drug courts, and programs designed to help inmates re-integrate into society upon release. Yet for all the attention paid to reforming the system, few words have been uttered about the violence and killings that happen inside the state-owned facilities.

"[http://www.dcor.state.ga.us/Research/Fact_Sheets/Info_Sheets_ReentryServicesDivision.pdf|Ninety-five percent of the people who go in prison are gonna come out of prison]," Fort says. "And if they're brutalized while they're in prison, they're gonna brutalize us when they come out. It's in our best interest to make sure that the people we send in are at least treated humanely for that reason, out of self-interest more than anything else."

Spending years in fear for one's life, Geraghty says, does not help a person rehabilitate.

"This is a public safety issue," she says. "When we permit this level of violence within our state institutions it's going to come back to haunt us. And that scares me."

Getting answers about Bryant's death — be it a suicide, homicide, or accident — has been difficult. State transparency laws grant public officials the authority to withhold central inmate and institution files, which can include even corrections officials' email reactions to the death of a prisoner such as Bryant, until the investigation closes. And as Fort notes, investigations can go on forever. Family members might be informed on a case's progress (or lack thereof), but the wait for documents can prove interminable.

In 2012 SCHR began sending letters to corrections department Commissioner Brian Owens to express concern about the violence in the facilities he oversees. That year, they noted the correlation between an increase in violence and understaffed facilities or overcrowded prisons. In 2013 Geraghty focused on ongoing violence, deaths, and unsafe conditions at Hays State Prison. She wrote that the "Department's complete lack of reasonable response to this crisis in security is disturbing." In a June 2014 letter to Owens she highlighted Smith State Prison, where 21 percent of Georgia's 32 prisoner homicides since 2010 have taken place. Letters also went to Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers. Not once has she heard back, she says. In April 2014 Fort held a legislative hearing about prison violence with statements from Geraghty and the families of killed prisoners. Nearly 100 people packed one of the Gold Dome's biggest committee rooms. Some of those who spoke clutched portraits of their loved ones. State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, was the only other state lawmaker to attend the hearing.

State officials have been less than forthcoming for this story as well. That's to be expected from the corrections department, one of the state's most opaque agencies. Geraghty says incident reports once included photos and all witness statements. Now, she says, SCHR gets a "real partial" account of what happened. In 2013 — after DOC demanded approximately $250,000 to produce documents about two inmates' deaths, faulty locks at one state prison, and security audits — SCHR sued the department. Since resolving the lawsuit, Geraghty says, the SCHR and DOC attorneys have had a "productive relationship." DOC officials have accepted changes to the state's transparency laws that permit the agency to keep secret the identities of people who supply drugs used in lethal injections. When Owens gave elected officials a tour of Hays State Prison after improvements were made, a state lawmaker's request to invite the media was rebuffed. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the reason was that security upgrades remained incomplete. The DOC rejected CL's open records request for all memos, documents, and emails related to Bryant's death, citing state provisions that carve out exemptions for the DOC. The GBI did the same.

Corrections department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan declined an interview request for Owens, saying only that he was "unavailable." She did not acknowledge requests to elaborate but did offer to answer questions. CL also requested access to Ware State Prison. Hogan says the department could provide photos of its exterior and interior but emailed only a lo-res photo of the building's entrance — the only available image of the multi-million dollar public asset, she says.

State lawmakers also dodged any discussion. State Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, and state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the lawmakers who chair the Gold Dome committees that oversee the corrections department, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The department, Hogan says, "continues to review, monitor and enforce policies related to the operation of safe and secure facilities throughout our prisons to ensure we carry out our non-negotiable mission of protecting the public, our staff and the inmates."

In March 2013, shortly before Bryant was found dead under undisclosed circumstances, Hogan says the DOC began what's called a "hardening process" in all close (i.e., maximum) security prisons, including Hays State Prison. The program, according to a fact sheet provided by the department, involved installing features in cells and dorms including tray and handcuff slots and barrel bolts, as well as replacing fixtures and objects that could be used as weapons. Correctional officers also received stab-resistant vests.

In August 2013 the department created a tiered system to segregate dangerous inmates in separate facilities. The worst repeat troublemakers would be taken to the Special Management Unit — aka solitary confinement — at the Diagnostic and Classified Prison in Butts County, home to Georgia's death row. Inmates are able to "transition" from one tier to another based on behavior.

Wayne Dasher, a corrections department board member, says that the agency has been responsive to the violence and that the tiered system is being monitored.

"Has there been an urgency?" he says. "Absolutely. Safety is the number one thing. Whether it be for an inmate or guards or any of the staff."

There will always be prison violence, SCHR acknowledges in its June report. The goal, Fort says, should be "safer prisons." And the state can take steps to increase inmate safety and increase transparency without putting security concerns at risk.

At the end of its report, SCHR offers more than 20 recommendations to state officials. The list includes requesting state auditors to perform a comprehensive probe of the state's prisons and hiring an "outside, impartial prison security expert" to evaluate the problem, identify causes, and propose solutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been at the forefront of some other states' initiatives. More than a decade ago the organization sued Mississippi over crowded and unsafe conditions that contributed to violence in one of its prison's solitary confinement divisions. The organization's 2010 settlement resulted in the transfer of inmates and the facility's closure.


  • Illustration by Rachel Hortman
  • Source: SCHR (top); GDOC/glassdoor.com

That same year the ACLU sued the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America in federal court for "turning a blind eye to the brutality" in one Idaho facility that lawyers said was more dangerous than the state's other eight prisons combined. The two sides settled one year later, and a judge's order has helped keep CCA in check.

Geraghty says Georgia prisons currently are missing what she calls "good old-fashioned security." By that she means correction officers actually supervising prisoners inside the living areas, 24 hours a day.

"We have heard from so many people in prison that there are large chunks of every day when there are no officers present at all," she says. "And a lot of incident reports that we have reviewed bear that out."

But plans for future prisons, according to corrections department fact sheets, appear to further remove guards from direct inmate supervision.

Increasing officer pay might improve safety and help retain guards in prisons. According to a state audit conducted in December 2013, "starting salary and frequency of pay increases were cited by officers in exit interviews as the top two worst things about working for DOC." Guards at Ware State Prison start at $24,322, according to the online jobs portal, and top out around $42,643. Thanks to an additional $8 million in this fiscal year's budget, however, correctional officers who keep watch on the state's wards will get a $3,150 pay bump if they stay on the job for a year.

These improvements have not been well communicated to the public or advocates. And the violence allegedly continues in the prison system.

"The reality is that today, as we speak, right now, we hear about stabbings and beatings all the time," Geraghty says. "Something is still amiss. Something still isn't working. The degree of violence we're seeing does not happen in a well-run system. The volume of contraband that's coming in to maximum-security prisons does not come into a well-run system."

In May 2014 a dead man requested a new trial. Thomas Wight, Bryant's public defender during his murder trial, filed a motion in Fulton County Superior Court arguing that his client deserved another chance to plead his case.

The legal motion wasn't a mistake, the Lilburn attorney says. Wight says he knows Bryant is dead. Nonetheless, the attorney has been trying to resolve the case assigned to him by the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Doing so requires an official document, such as a death certificate. But he claims that DOC has not been willing to provide one. Wight says he hopes that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard will be able to compel the department to produce a document so PDSC can mark the case as closed.

"I can't get corrections to confirm the obvious," Wight says. Once that happens, "the appeal stops. The whole thing is mooted."

Johnson, who first learned about violence in Georgia prisons from a constituent, has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the Georgia prison system, a move that the congressman says would "certainly be an encouragement to the state to create a better environment or safe environment for its inmates."

He has yet to hear back from the Justice Department.

Earlier this month, more than a year after Bryant's death, the GBI completed its investigation. The agency says it turned over its findings to Ware County District Attorney Brad Collins. Some time after, Jackson says he received a call from Collins' office. The family member said he would be allowed to travel to Waycross to review the findings of the case surrounding his niece's son's death. He said he would not be allowed to videotape, photograph, or photocopy any materials. That sit-down was supposed to take place the day this story was published.

"We are a society that operates under a rule of law," Johnson says. "This is not vigilante justice. If a person is sentenced then that sentence is what they should do. It would violate the rules of the law to allow for jungle justice to prevail inside the prisons."

According to Jackson, he and the other members of Bryant's family face a two-year statute of limitations to file a civil lawsuit, if warranted. Thus, the clock is ticking, depending on what the family discovers. Absent any new information, Jackson says he will continue to push. He wants to convince state lawmakers to hold another hearing. According to SCHR, at least one more inmate has been killed since he first spoke with CL in April.

"It's getting out of hand," he says. "One death in my opinion ... is too much. I'm going to keep this in front of people."

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