published Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Another year, another death: Danger, problems linger at Hays State Prison

Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga.
Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga.
Photo by Dan Henry.

UPDATED: Life and death at Hays State Prison

HAYS STATE TIMELINE

Dec. 19, 2012: Inmate Derrick Stubbs, 25, dies from a beating at the hands of other inmates.

Dec. 26: Inmate Damion MacClain, 27, dies after being strangled and beaten in his bed by other inmates.

Jan. 18, 2013: Nathaniel Reynolds, 31, dies after being ambushed by other inmates as he is escorted back to his dorm.

Jan. 27: Two Hays guards are stabbed even though the prison is on full lockdown.

Jan. 31: The Southern Center for Human Rights calls for an impartial prison expert to evaluate the violence at Hays and explore solutions.

Feb. 5: Hays inmate Pippa Hall-Jackson, 19, is stabbed to death by another Hays inmate before stepping off a bus at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison's transfer yard in Jackson, Ga.

Feb. 6: Hays warden Clay Tatum is replaced by an interim warden.

July 1: Scott Crickmar takes over as warden at Hays.

Dec. 11: Inmate Phillips Pearson, 42, is found dead inside a one-man cell. Authorities say evidence points to a suicide.

Derrick Stubbs died a little over a year ago inside a prison cell intended to keep him safe.

Guards at Hays State Prison had placed the 25-year-old convicted robber in protective custody on Dec. 9, but 10 days later he was found dead within the maximum security penitentiary in Trion, Ga. Investigators said he died from blows to the stomach and classified his death a gang-related homicide.

Stubbs' killing set off a spasm of violence that resulted in four inmate deaths, the removal of the warden and a prison crackdown with effects still felt today.

The deaths also shed light on a number of problems at the prison. Locks had been neglected for years and some doors could be opened with a foreign object, even a finger. Gang leaders had enough control to decide where prisoners slept and inmates roamed the halls into the night. Inmates used smuggled cellphones to threaten families on the outside: Send money or your loved one dies.

After 19-year-old Pippa Hall Jackson was stabbed to death in early February before he stepped off a transfer bus from Hays -- the fourth killing -- the Georgia Department of Corrections acted.

Hays warden Clay Tatum was replaced roughly 24 hours later. The Corrections Department moved to spend more than $2 million to replace failed locks and improve security. It outfitted guards with stabproof vests and sent some of the prison's most violent criminals to other facilities.

The changes seem to have helped.

Today, assaults on officers and inmates appear to be lower. Order has improved. Prisoner restrictions have eased.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment for this report.

Yet interviews with prison guards and family members of inmates, along with monthly reports from Hays, suggest that the situation has not returned to normal.

The guard shortage at Hays is as high or higher than it was at the peak of the violence. From July through November, the prison averaged a 17.5 percent vacancy rate among correctional officers, according to monthly reports Hays sends to the Department of Corrections. From July through October alone, the prison paid out nearly $700,000 in overtime.

Since Scott Crickmar was appointed warden in July, the prison has remained on limited lockdown. That means prisoners are still escorted to and from the chow hall and they are limited in where they can go.

While assaults were down for the five-month period, 223 inmates were treated in the prison's medical ward. The condition of 11 inmates was severe enough that they were transported to a local hospital.

Yet until two weeks ago no one had died under the new warden's watch.

But on Dec. 11, that changed.

•••

Phillips Pearson, 42, was found dead inside a one-man cell that day, investigators confirmed. Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Greg Ramey said there didn't appear to be signs of foul play and the evidence points to a possible suicide.

But Pearson's father, Charlie, said the last time he talked to his son he was in fear for his life. He remembers what his son said across the prison phone: "Daddy, I don't think I'm going to make it out."

When Charlie Pearson saw his son's body laid out at the funeral home on Dec. 20, he noticed bruises on his son's face, and he was thinner than normal.

Several officers have expressed their suspicions about the manner of Pearson's death. First they were told he died of an overdose, then that he hanged himself. One officer, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said the timing was suspicious because the prison's emergency response team was spotted inside the cell before Pearson was found.

"If he was suicidal, he should have been in a strip cell and [on] regular observation," the officer said.

Corrections officials won't talk about the death, citing an open investigation. Neither would Coroner Earle Rainwater confirm if he saw bruises on Pearson's body as his father said he saw. Rainwater wouldn't say what he believes Pearson died from, also citing an open investigation.

"It's heartbreaking to hear of another death there," said Melanie Velez, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, a prison advocacy group.

Velez said the center has also received a dozen complaints from inmates who say they are being underfed. While Velez said she hasn't investigated each individual case, she said the complaints are consistent with one another.

Charlie Pearson said that his son, who had been in prison 17 years on a murder conviction, also complained over the summer that he wasn't getting enough food. He also said he had been beaten by officers. When the elder Pearson called the prison to get more information, no one ever called him back, he said.

"The prison won't give us no information," he said. "Whatever it is, they need to put a stop to [the violence.] They are somebody's kids. To me that prison needs to be closed down."

•••

The Department of Corrections denied a Times Free Press request to speak with Crickmar, and any questions about conditions at the prison had to be submitted in an open records request, a corrections spokeswoman said.

Families of the inmates killed last year and earlier this year are seeking answers, too.

Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections is in the midst of a civil rights lawsuit filed by the mother of one of the dead prisoners.

Christmas night marked a year since 28-year-old Damion MacClain was strangled and beaten in his bed after the door to his cell should have been locked.

MacClain's mother, RoHonda, sued Hays officials and the Department of Corrections in September, claiming the warden and other supervisors knew about escalating violence at Hays but chose to ignore it.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, which is suing on behalf of RoHonda MacClain, recently filed its response to a Department of Corrections motion to dismiss several officials from the case. MacClain is suing two top officials, three wardens or assistant wardens and three Hays officers.

RoHonda MacClain said the recent death at Hays reminds her to continue trying to spread the word about what happened to her son.

She has invited the families of other inmates, New York TV producers and churches to a summer memorial service for her son in Baton Rouge, La., 20 miles from where he grew up.

She also is working to get nonprofit status to start a group in Atlanta where she lives called My Brother's Keeper and Sister's Keeper. Investigators said MacClain was killed by gang leaders, and RoHonda MacClain wants to work to help inner-city gang members.

"I don't want to see anyone else killed through gang violence," she said. "I can't bring my son back, but there is a possibility I could ... save someone else's life."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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