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:
And those deaths only represent the ones CL could track down.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Scheree Lipscomb says no one at the department can explain the oversight. Commissioner Jim Wetherington quit in February, and neither a new commissioner nor a temporary replacement has been named.
"I don't know, because I wasn't here, why they didn't report them," Lipscomb says. "We know that [past administrations] were required to."
After reviewing the files on the three deaths, Lipscomb found the 22-year-old's death initially was attributed to a heart attack. Later, after the GBI investigation showed a baton had in fact been pressed against the inmate's throat, cutting off his air, the Department of Corrections must have failed to update the records, Lipscomb says.
As for the murder victim, his death certificate lists the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head with "delayed consequences." "Because it said 'delayed consequences,' maybe they weren't sure if it was really that," Lipscomb says. Apparently, the murder charge against the cellmate wasn't enough to dispel the confusion surrounding "delayed consequences."
As for the 45-year-old inmate who died after being subdued by guards, Lipscomb says his death certificate states he died of a heart attack. So officials didn't have to count that one as being "caused by another."
Lipscomb initially told CL the state would alert the Justice Department to two of the three deaths. She then called back and said since the deaths occurred seven or more years ago, the state wasn't going to report them after all.
A Justice Department employee, who asked not to be named, says the Georgia Department of Corrections is obligated to 'fess up to the deaths. He said he was appalled at the idea of the Justice Department sitting on incorrect statistics because the Georgia agency won't update them.
Another Justice Department employee, policy analyst Christopher Mumola, says it's the state's responsibility -- not the feds' -- to make sure the number of prison deaths is correct. "We can't initiate a correction," he says.
At least six more inmate homicides have occurred since 2001 under the watch of the Georgia Department of Corrections. (The Justice Department has not yet released its state-by-state totals for those years). Three of the victims were killed by their cellmates at a single prison: Phillips State.
Phillips houses mentally ill inmates or ones with behavioral problems, meaning there's a higher standard placed on guards' training than even at maximum-security pens. Bunking two mentally disturbed convicts in intimate proximity poses obvious challenges to their safety. Phillips creates even more dangerous situations by locking inmates in psychotic rages in cells with other inmates. Guards are alleged (in lawsuits) to have ignored the inmates to the point that inmates killed -- not once, which might be considered an exception, but three times, which clearly cannot be.
Department of Corrections officials refused to comment on homicides at Phillips or at Autry because both prisons are facing lawsuits. In court documents filed in response to one of the lawsuits, however, the state attorney general's office excuses the deaths: "All prisons have incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence," according to the court papers. "Defendants have taken reasonable measures to reduce inmate-on-inmate violence."
"Tyrone was just railroaded," says Johnnie Kitchen, lifting her eyes from her yellow notepad for the first time during a two-hour interview. For most of the conversation, she's been fixated on covering pages with geometric shapes, hiding almost all the yellow behind blue ink. She caps and uncaps her pen, caps and uncaps her pen. She lets her daughter do most of the talking.
Five years into Lee's sentence, he was moved into what's called the J-Building at Autry State Prison in Pelham, about 40 miles north of the Florida border. Autry is Georgia's third-largest prison, and J-Building is the highest-security of its six dorms. The dorm is split into two sections. J-1 houses inmates who've acted up and have gone through a disciplinary hearing. Inmates there live in isolation, in accommodations more commonly called "the hole."
J-2 houses inmates who are waiting for a disciplinary hearing -- and others who've been deemed mentally ill, or who need to be protected from the prison's general population. That's where Lee found himself: J-2, cell No. 235.
The whole point of J-Building is to place tighter security on the inmates housed there. Ideally, no inmates in either section share cells. That would put them at greater risk of hurting someone or getting hurt. But in J-2, if it gets crowded enough, sometimes they do share.
When inmates must be bunked together, the Department of Corrections logic goes, they at least must be the same classification of prisoner. So two mentally ill inmates will share a cell, or two inmates awaiting disciplinary hearings, or two inmates who've been threatened in general population.
There is one condition, however, under which even those inmates must be separated. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lipscomb says an inmate who has fought with another inmate and is sent to J-2 should never be assigned a cellmate, period.
That's what makes the arrival of Lee's cellmate so curious.
Leon Murphy had been convicted in 2000 of shooting an acquaintance eight times with two guns, had been in prison less than a year and already had issues. He allegedly made death threats against an inmate at another prison. And, according to a guard who used to work at Autry, he got into at least one fight -- hence his assignment to J-2.
Lee's sister says Lee called her shortly before he was placed in J-2 and mentioned he wanted to be housed there because he feared for his life. Attorneys later learned Lee specifically might have feared Murphy.
Somehow, though, prison officials decided it was a good idea for Murphy to move in with Lee.
Even if Lee never voiced his fear of Murphy to prison staffers, Murphy's assault history and sheer size should have kept him away from the smaller inmate, according to the former guard, Charles Hill. Lee was but a shadow to Murphy's 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame.
"I'm still trying to figure out why would they put this big old guy in the room with this little fellow," Hill says. He worked in J-2 while Lee and Murphy were there and has since been fired. "If a man is already locked up for malice murder, you ain't gonna put him in a room with somebody's who's just mentally disturbed and did a little minor crime or whatever. That don't fit."
The official reason for Lee landing in J-2 is unclear. The Department of Corrections can opt to withhold an inmate's file -- which includes cell assignments, discipline records and pleas for protection -- even if the documents are requested under the state Open Records Act. There's a clause in state law that says inmate files are "classified state secrets," to be released only with the permission of the Department of Corrections' commissioner or by subpoena. (The files aren't even released to family in the event of the inmate's death.) Currently, there is no commissioner. And attorneys have not yet subpoenaed the files of Lee or Murphy.
But other documents -- including an internal prison incident report and two guards' termination papers -- were released to CL under the Open Records Act. And the pages give a clear picture of what happened after Murphy moved into cell No. 235.
Lee's death was avoidable. If prison officials had shown better judgment in finding a place to stash Murphy -- perhaps locking him in a cell with someone closer to the size and disposition of Mike Tyson -- Lee's life might have been spared.
But there's another way to look at what happened in cell No. 235. Lee's death, given the state of Georgia's prison system, also was inevitable.
In the 1990s, Georgia adopted laws mandating more stringent sentencing. One law requires that inmates convicted of any one of 20 felonies serve at least 90 percent of their time. Another law says felons who commit one of "seven deadly sins" must face a minimum of 10 years in prison with no parole. And if inmates commit a second sin after they're released, they automatically go to prison, with no parole, for life.
About 14,600 inmates have so far been sentenced under these laws, according to the Department of Corrections. Average sentences served have jumped from seven to 16 years.
So it's no coincidence that Georgia's prison population has bloated beyond recognition. The number of state inmates nearly doubled over the past decade, to 47,000.
The number of prison guards hasn't doubled in the time that the inmate population has. Not even close. In the past five years -- the only years for which numbers were available -- the number of guards grew in small increments, from 7,900 to 8,600. With such a widening ratio of guards to inmates, prisons are arguably less secure than they once were.
The Department of Corrections denies that the prison population is growing so fast that guards can't keep up. "We are staffed at a level that will ensure that we protect the staff and the inmates," Lipscomb says.
Like the guards, the number of beds in various types of prisons -- from minimum to maximum security -- hasn't grown in proportion to the influx of inmates, either. Simply put, max-security types sometimes must mingle with inmates who aren't serious security risks -- inmates who fast become victims. It's called double-celling and it's a last resort, a sure sign that there's no place left to house an inmate short of the hallway.
In January 2002, a letter arrived at Autry State Prison from the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Southern Center is a nonprofit law firm that files class-action lawsuits against prisons and jails with the hope to improve unconstitutional conditions. Its attorneys had visited Autry eight times in the previous two months, and they were perturbed by what inmates were telling them.
"We know that running a prison is a complicated and difficult matter, and we sincerely hope that we can resolve these issues with you in a constructive and amicable manner," the letter states. It goes on to spell out complaints inmates voiced to the attorneys:
"The overcrowded conditions and inadequate staffing make it difficult for the officers on duty to intervene effectively. ... According to several prisoners, correctional officers do not even try to break up fights or get involved when a prisoner is getting beaten. ... Prisoners placed in protective custody, isolation or segregation in the J-Buildings report that the prison's practice of double-celling in J-Building places them in serious danger of rape and assault, and that little caution is taken to make sure that known enemies or prisoners who are otherwise incompatible are not placed in a single cell together."
Lee died in J-Building less than a month after the letter arrived.
At close to 10 p.m. Feb. 6, 2002, two guards showed up at the J-2 side of J-Building to relieve the second shift. The third shift was considered desirable; inmates were asleep most of the time, so there were fewer chores and not so much attitude.
As usual, the arriving guards were briefed by those on their way out. There were 85 inmates in J-2 that night, the guards learned. That's the maximum number the cellblock was supposed to hold. Officer Jason Prietz took the top floor of J-2. Officer Hill would man the downstairs.
Hill, whom CL reached at home, says he doesn't recall anything out of the ordinary about the briefing. The second shift hadn't finished escorting inmates to the showers, he recalls, so he and Prietz would have to finish the job. That was typical. On an easy night, it takes several hours for the cellblock's only two guards to walk each inmate to one of six showers stalls, lock him in and walk him back.
Every 30 minutes, guards are supposed to break from shower duty and conduct a round of cell checks. The Department of Corrections mandates the 30-minute checks to make sure inmates in J-Building aren't hurting themselves or each other.
But on the night of Feb. 6 and into the following morning, Prietz wasn't making his rounds as often as he should have.
At about 1:30 a.m., an orderly named Eddie Lipscomb (no relation to the Department of Corrections spokeswoman) made his way to J-Building to help clean the cellblock and pass out breakfast trays. Orderlies -- inmates who've proved not to be serious risks -- assist guards in carrying out their tasks. Lipscomb noted in a written statement to prison officials that at 1:35 a.m., Hill and Prietz were still escorting inmates to showers. Another orderly, Jamie Ward, said showers continued until after 4 a.m.
That might explain why neither guard heard what inmate Kevin Boyd said he heard just after 2 a.m. "It sounded like something heavy being dropped, or being thrown down with extreme force repeatedly," Boyd wrote in a statement filed with the prison. "Then I heard someone yelling for the officer and for help."
Boyd was housed in cell No. 136, a downstairs cell under Hill's watch -- and almost directly below the cell Lee and Murphy shared. Boyd claims he asked Hill to tell whoever it was upstairs to be quiet. Hill replied "that he didn't know what was going on, but he had told the other officer to check on it," according to the inmate's statement. "This carried on for a few hours."
Prietz didn't check on Lee and Murphy from at least 2:10 a.m. to 4:10 a.m., according to prison documents.
In a written statement filed with the prison, Prietz said that when he checked on cell No. 235 at 4:10 a.m., both inmates were in their beds, Murphy on the top bunk and Lee on the bottom.
"At about 4:20 or so I heard a loud bang from the room," Prietz wrote. He says he returned to No. 235 and peeked through the steel door's small, square window. Murphy was standing by the window. He said he'd just jumped from his top bunk to use the toilet. "At that time I had seen a small amount of blood on his bed," Prietz wrote. "I asked where the blood came from. He showed me where he has stitches in the back of his head." It was an injury Murphy suffered in the days prior, Prietz noted.
Lee, the guard wrote, appeared to be sleeping.
Within the hour, Prietz began passing out breakfast trays upstairs. He stopped at No. 235. "Who's not eating?" Prietz asked, according to an orderly who was on the hall. This time, Prietz claims he noticed blood not just on Murphy's bed, but on his shirt, his socks and the wall. "I told Murphy to wake up Damon," Prietz wrote. "He told me that Damon did not want to be bothered."
Prietz ran downstairs to grab officer Hill and two nurses who were passing out medication. The four hurried to No. 235 and repeatedly called to Lee. "Inmate Murphy was holding a blanket up so we could not see Inmate Lee," according to one nurse's statement.
"He then turned around and walked back to the bed," the other nurse wrote, "and started eating his breakfast."
The sergeant on duty is required to be present if the cell door is opened. Hill radioed him. Nearly 20 minutes passed between the time Prietz carried the breakfast trays to the bloody cell and the time Sgt. Alfred Favors arrived to open the door, at 5:30 a.m.
Inside the cell, the sergeant and guards found Lee on the bottom bunk, under a blanket and atop a blood-drenched sheet. "Blood was noted all over the room," a nurse recalled.
The guards and sergeant cuffed Murphy and led him down the hall to the shower. According to a local sheriff's deputy who'd arrived, Murphy kept saying, "He's all right. He'll be OK."
Lee's eyes were swollen shut and blue. Blood was caked around his nose and on his face. On his neck was a bite wound.
The nurses worked to revive him. One wiped Lee's face and began CPR. On the first compression, blood trickled out of his mouth. The other worked an air tube through his tightened jaws and his constricted airway. They attached electrodes to Lee's chest to try to restart his heart. Medics arrived at 5:50 a.m. and took over. Fifteen minutes later, they quit. Lee had been dead -- from a broken neck, lacerated spinal cord and blows to the neck and abdomen -- for some time.
Murphy was arrested that morning and was indicted four months later for Lee's murder. At a January 2003 court hearing, during which Murphy was supposed to plead guilty, he changed his mind at the last minute.
But he did tell the judge he "killed an innocent man."
Cassandra Lee had just returned home from dropping off her 7-year-old daughter at school. For the past three years, she'd shared a home in the Atlanta 'burbs with her mother, but their native Waycross was still home. Lee's mother, Johnnie Kitchen, was about to make the five-hour drive down south to visit family and pick up her tax check from her trusted accountant.
That's when the phone rang. Kitchen answered. Autry's warden, Carl Humphrey, was on the line. Kitchen recalls the unceremonious statement that followed: "I'm sorry to tell you that your son Damon Tyrone has died a mysterious death." That was the last conversation Kitchen had with the warden or anyone from the Department of Corrections.
She says she didn't believe him. Her son wasn't dead. They made a mistake. Her daughter was hysterical. Kitchen went on with her day as if nothing had happened, quietly repeating to herself that Damon was alive. She got in her car and drove to Waycross.
It wasn't until she walked into the funeral home to identify the body that Kitchen accepted her son was gone. Despite his extensive injuries, she recalls him as he'd always been. "He looked peaceful," she says. "No hate."
Her own anger didn't sink in until later.
Cassandra Lee wanted answers from the start. She worked in the corrections industry, after all. She knew 22-year-old men didn't die mysteriously.
Considering Murphy was charged with Lee's murder, there should have been no mystery on the prison's part about the cause of Lee's death. Murphy is scheduled to go to trial this month.
Nor did Autry officials wonder how such a beating could have happened in what's supposed to be the prison's most secure dorm. Clearly the guards neglected their duty, according to prison paperwork filed in relation to their subsequent terminations.
Prietz was fired almost four months after Lee's death for neglecting to check on Lee every 30 minutes the night he died. Prietz no longer lives at the address listed on his termination papers and could not be tracked down for comment.
Although it was not Hill's job to look after Lee and Murphy (he guarded the downstairs cells), he was fired, too, five days after Prietz. Hill's termination papers say he falsely indicated that he'd conducted rounds every half-hour. It appeared that Hill signed every inmate's door sheet every 30 minutes, but according to prison officials he couldn't have done so.
Documents obtained by CL, however, show Hill was terminated over a mere four-minute discrepancy. Hill last signed the sheets at 5:23 a.m.; prison officials claim he'd been called upstairs for help at 5:19 a.m. and therefore must have lied.
Hill says he simply misstated the exact time -- and became the Department of Corrections' scapegoat after he complained that Prietz, who'd worked as a guard for seven months, wasn't qualified to guard the J-Building. He says Prietz wasn't trained to handle the specific needs of J-Building's population: the mentally disturbed, the violently aggressive and the spooked and endangered.
"I blame the young man that was with me a little bit, but I don't blame him a lot," Hill says. "Because the person that put [Prietz] in that building ought to have known better."
That, however, is not something prison officials wanted to hear -- or are accustomed to hearing, according to Hill.
"You know, everybody's gonna cover everybody's butt," he says. "Ain't nobody going to say nothing. Because who's going to tell on their fellow officers?"
As the prison was reaching its decision to fire Prietz and Hill, Cassandra Lee was urging her mother to find an attorney who could figure out who was to blame in Lee's death. In their search, however, they stumbled upon another ugly reality: Federal law makes it easy for states to ignore inmates' constitutional rights -- and, as a result, their deaths.
The simplest way to explain the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which went into effect in 1996, is to say it overshot its target. The point was to curb the number of frivolous lawsuits inmates were filing, and there were frivolous suits aplenty. The manner chosen to curtail them, as mandated by the Act, is where the problem comes in.
Rather than discourage inmates from clogging federal courts with lawsuits alleging something as trivial as stolen sneakers (and there were such lawsuits, hand-written by inmates who had nothing but years of time on their hands), the law discouraged attorneys from taking prisoners' cases. The law caps the amount of fees attorneys can accept in the event of a settlement in a prisoner's rights case. And since few inmates have the cash to pay attorneys up front, the fees are usually the only way attorneys get paid.
Prison cases, it's important to note, are notorious for taking more time and investigation than your average lawsuit. More work and less pay isn't exactly an attractive combination.
"A case of a slip and fall at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store up the street is more lucrative than a murder case where a guard kills an inmate, and that's because of the law," says Courtland Reichman, an attorney in the Atlanta office of mega-firm King & Spalding.
Reichman represented an inmate named Lealon Muldrow, who was badly beaten by guards and chained to his bed for six days at a federal prison in Georgia. After logging 2,000 hours on the case, Reichman settled with the feds. It was the first and only federal inmate settlement to come out of the South. It was for $99,000.
The last significant settlement against a state prison in Georgia totaled $280,000 -- and was split among 14 inmates and their lawyers.
It's cheaper for the Department of Corrections to let someone die, face a lawsuit and offer whatever settlement it pleases than to make changes that would prevent deaths in the first place, Reichman argues. So it's no surprise that Kitchen was shot down by attorney after attorney. Despite the obvious culpability for her son's untimely death, the case wasn't a moneymaker.
The surprise is that an attorney found her.
Marion Chartoff, with the Southern Center for Human Rights, learned about Lee's death after interviewing inmates at Autry. It was stunning news. The Southern Center had flat-out warned Autry officials that inmate-on-inmate violence was about to get out of hand in J-Building -- weeks before it actually got out of hand in J-Building.
Chartoff began hunting for Lee's family. She found Johnnie Kitchen through the funeral home where Lee's body was delivered. She figured she had the perfect remedy for the mother's distress: Reichman. At Chartoff's urging, Reichman and fellow King & Spalding attorney Melissa Cannady volunteered to look into Lee's death.
Reichman and Cannady are intellectual property attorneys representing big names like Coca-Cola and UPS. That enables them to sometimes take such cases as a prisoner's rights one. Regardless of how much time it will take to investigate a death like Lee's -- and it will likely take hundreds of hours over several years -- the two attorneys can afford not to get paid.
But if a judge or jury awards Kitchen decently for her son's death, Reichman and Cannady have decided they will take a small cut -- and use it to establish a foundation of attorneys who regularly take prison rights' cases, pro bono. They hope the foundation will bring systemic change that has so far been stymied.
Reichman and Cannady filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in January on behalf of Johnnie Kitchen. The lawsuit alleges that Autry guards, their supervisors and the warden subjected Lee to cruel and unusual punishment: "The deliberate indifference by Defendants to the safety and constitutional rights of Mr. Lee ultimately led to the brutal attack and gruesome death Mr. Lee suffered."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, but Reichman says he's looking for at least seven figures.
"You have to make it in their financial best interest," Reichman says, "to make them comply with the law and their own regulations."
On the morning of Feb. 7, 2002, Johnnie Kitchen woke from what she describes as a strange dream. The dream -- like the arrival of Reichman and Cannady -- seems too amazing to comprehend. "I don't think I'm crazy," she says. "I know I'm not crazy."
In the dream, she's sitting on a bed made up with crisp white sheets. There is a sink and toilet in the room. Her son walks in. He's wearing a white T-shirt, white boxers and white knee socks. He's fresh from the shower.
Flopping next to her on the bed, which he used to do when he still lived at home, he looked up at her.
"Well mama, all of this is about over," he said. "Everything's gonna be all right."
"Yeah, Boo," she answered, evoking the name she called him when he was little. "Everything's gonna be all right."
Kitchen woke and looked at the clock. It was sometime after 5 a.m. It was close to the time guards discovered her son's body.