Page 2 of 7
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.