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Maximum insecurity

Nobody paid attention the night Damon Tyrone Lee was beaten to death inside a Georgia prison cell


On the night of Oct. 27, 1996, Damon Tyrone Lee -- barely 17 and moments into one of his worst-ever decisions -- was placed in a patrol car and driven to the Ware County jail. The trip marked the beginning of the end of Lee's abbreviated life. He would leave jail for prison, be transferred from one correctional hellhole to the next, and pass his last five years behind bars.

Before that night in October, there were few signs to suggest Lee would come of age in lockdown. His mother, Johnnie Kitchen, worked steadily over the years, manning nearly every post there was at the nearby Kroger to see that her children didn't want for anything. Cassandra Lee, five years her brother's senior, joined the Air Force out of high school. When she returned six years later, she went to work for the state Department of Juvenile Justice. From that vantage point, she guarded her little brother closely.

The pint-sized man of the house had made a recent habit of missing curfew and dressing too much like the no-good boys in the neighborhood, his sister noticed. When he began to stray, she jerked him back in line.

But no one would have imagined that for the little trouble Lee managed to find, big trouble would find him.

The final minutes of Lee's freedom go something like this: He wanders the main drag of the southeast Georgia town of Waycross, past the Krystal and Flash Foods and toward the parking lot of Horizons Video. He carries a stick. A car pulls into the lot. Lee walks up to the driver and says, "Get in your trunk."

The man looks over Lee's 5-foot-6, 145-pound frame and says no. Lee hits the man in the head with the stick, turns and runs. The man runs after him.

Lee stuck around long enough for police to find him, his stick and his Schwinn 10-speed, which he hadn't even used to ride away. The officer who arrested Lee was puzzled by the teenager's behavior. "He admitted he had done what they said he did," the cop wrote in a report, "and stated he 'just clicked and couldn't handle it,' whatever that means."

Six months later, Lee, prompted by his court-appointed attorney and unbeknownst to his mother, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault -- the same charge he'd have received had he pulled a gun instead of a stick. Had he crossed the man in the parking lot five weeks earlier, when he was still 16, Lee would have been spared the 12-year prison sentence a Ware County judge handed him. He instead would have gone to juvenile court and been sent to a juvenile detention center. He never would have set foot in Autry State Prison. And he never would have met the man who killed him.

Despite the fact that violence thrives in prisons -- an estimated 3,600 assaults occurred in Georgia's prisons from July 2001 to July 2002 -- prison murders are supposed to be rare. If you look at statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Justice, they are.

The Justice Department tracks inmate-on-inmate homicides based on what individual states report. By that measure, there were 74 prison murders nationwide in 1995, up from 57 in 1990 (the only two years for which numbers are available).

The Justice Department doesn't break down the statistics by state, but it does measure, state by state, the more sweeping category of inmate "deaths caused by another." From 1993 to 2000, 542 inmates in state prisons died at the hands of a fellow inmate or guard, according to the Justice Department.

Oddly, the Georgia Department of Corrections -- home to the seventh-largest prison population in the country -- claimed only one such death in that seven-year interim. Judging from the Justice Department stats, it appears Georgia's sole prison murder was a fluke, an anomaly, nothing but an aberration in an otherwise tidy prison system.

Somehow, in its reports to the Justice Department, the state of Georgia overlooked the following:

  • A 22-year-old inmate housed at Arrendale State Prison in north Georgia was strangled during a fight with guards in September 1995, according to an autopsy released a month later by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. One of the guards was indicted the following February for giving false statements to the GBI regarding how the inmate died.

  • In August 1996, an inmate at Rutledge State Prison in Columbus was charged with the murder of a fellow inmate, whom he kicked repeatedly in the head during a recent fight.

  • Four months later, a 45-year-old inmate at Valdosta State Prison died after guards "subdued" him and escorted him in handcuffs to the infirmary, according to prison officials. He was putting up a fight, screaming there were demons after him.
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