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Home  >  Topics  >  Corrections

April 10, 2007
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Wave of deadly violence sweeps Ga. state prisons

By CARLOS CAMPOS
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
 
ATLANTA, Ga. - A rash of violence swept through the Georgia prison system in March, including three slayings and a bloody scuffle between guards and a handcuffed, mentally ill inmate at Phillips State Prison that left him hospitalized with serious injuries.

The injuries to inmate Bryan T. Graham, and a prison guard he assaulted, were among several incidents that occurred in March including:

* The slayings of inmates Douglas Wren at Coastal State Prison on March 4, Robert Hollis at Georgia State Prison on March 11 and Paul Phillips at Calhoun State Prison on March 27. A second inmate was wounded in the attack at Calhoun.

* An assault on a handcuffed inmate by a guard at Calhoun State Prison on March 15.

* The firing and demotion of five guards on March 23 following the beating of inmate Michael Brown at Georgia State Prison in January. Some of the guards were disciplined for falsifying information.

The GBI is investigating the three slayings, which it usually does after deaths in prison. But the string of violent incidents was serious enough to be brought to the attention of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

"The governor is waiting to see the GBI reports," said his communications director, Dan McLagan said.

Yolanda Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said there have been five murders in the prison system dating back to 2005, including the three homicides in March.

Thompson said the prison system has found no common causes linking the incidents, and said staffing in prisons is at adequate levels. "These are distinct, in the context of each incident," she said.

Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta law firm that monitors prison conditions, said three slayings in a month is "very troubling."

"It raises questions about the degree of security at the prisons and supervision of the correctional officers," Bright said. "And perhaps other issues, like the number of inmates that are there and how well they are being supervised."

Thompson said the system will not tolerate violent attacks, whether they are instigated by inmates or prison employees.

But she said it's difficult to manage the state's convicted felons --- 60 percent of whom are considered violent. About 7,000 inmates are serving life sentences, and about 8,000 have mental illnesses, she said. The total prison population on Friday was 52,792, records show.

She said the department's prison guards are "unsung heroes" for protecting the public from inmates. "The majority ... do that very well," she said "You have a few incidents that are indicative of what happens in any prison system in our country."

While most incidents involved inmate-on-inmate attacks, one violent confrontation took place between a prisoner and guards.

On March 21, inmate Graham was being escorted from the shower --- in handcuffs --- by a female guard, according to an incident report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Open Records Act.

The report says Graham slipped the handcuffs from the rear to the front, enabling him to assault Officer Sahirah Muhammad, "using [the handcuffs] as a weapon and striking her over the forehead, which caused the forehead to split open."

The guard, Muhammad, radioed for help and two other guards responded. The report says the two guards removed Graham from Muhammad. The report says Graham hit his head on some railings and on the floor, suffering cuts above his right eye and forehead.

The report concludes that "proper force" was used against Graham. It also mentions that Graham replied "Jesus told him to do it," when asked why he attacked Muhammad. Both he and Muhammad were transported to Atlanta Medical Center. She was treated and released; he was admitted.

But Graham's mother, Robin Graham of Acworth, was later told by prison officials that her son suffered a cracked rib, collapsed lung and other internal injuries. She wonders why so much force was used to subdue a handcuffed man. Robin Graham also alleges the prison system has failed to make sure her son is properly treated for his mental health problems.

Robin Graham said her son, 34, suffers from schizoaffective disorder, and gets into trouble when he goes off of his medication. He is serving a five-year sentence for assaulting a law enforcement officer in Cobb County.

She said she's having problems getting any questions answered about her son, even during his hospitalization. She was prohibited from seeing him.

"Families need access, they need information," she said. "They still prosecute mentally ill people if they do wrong. Those people do not know how to deal with mental illness, none of the police forces do."

Robin Graham said she noted many red flags when visiting her son in prison. Sometimes he was disheveled, wore dirty clothes, lost lots of weight and didn't sleep. She said she struggled to get prison officials to help her son but she was often dismissed as an overprotective mother.

Thompson, the prison system spokeswoman, said officials are not allowed to release information about inmates' medical information. She would not confirm Graham's status as a mental health inmate. But Phillips is one of only a few prisons in the entire state with a mental health unit.

Thompson emphasized that an "unprovoked" Graham attacked the female corrections officer and also noted his conviction for assaulting another peace officer.

Thompson said the incident is the subject of an internal investigation. When asked why it took so much force to subdue a handcuffed prisoner, Thompson responded: "Why does a guy in handcuffs use those to assault an officer?"

The Southern Center for Human Rights has sued the state in the past over mental health inmates' treatment at Phillips.

"It's disappointing," said the center's Bright. "Because an institution like Phillips is really a specialty institution. All the staff there is supposed to be trained in dealing with mentally ill people and how best to deal with them without hurting the staff and the inmates. If the fellow was handcuffed, that certainly is a cause for great concern."

Thompson said prison officials will press charges against Graham for the assault on Muhammad. Graham has been transferred to Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, where the most dangerous felons in Georgia are held.


Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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