published Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Grieving mothers of Hays State Prison violence victims find strength in each other

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

UPDATED: Life and death at Hays State Prison

In their grief, two mothers found kindred spirits in each other.

Yolanda Jackson and RoHonda MacClain became friends when their sons were killed within a bloody, eight-week span at Hays State, one of Georgia's most violent prisons. While others said their sons were only criminals, they demanded answers, argued no one deserved to die that way.

MacClain was the stronger one, Jackson said. She had a plan to find justice for her 28-year-old son, Damion, and for Jackson's 19-year-old son, Pippa Hall-Jackson.

She called reporters across the country, talked about book deals, planned to start a foundation in both of their sons' memory. Then, with the help of an Atlanta advocacy group, she filed a lawsuit against state corrections officials to splash the years of neglect at the prison on the front of newspapers.

"She was our voice," Jackson said.

Altogether, four prisoners died at Hays between Dec. 19, 2012, and Feb. 5, 2013. Hays inmate Pippa Hall-Jackson was stabbed to death while being transferred to another facility.

An investigative look at the prison in Trion, Ga., revealed years of neglect -- broken locks left unrepaired, violence proliferating, gang leaders in charge of cell rooms and extorting family members on the outside for cash.

In the middle of the frenzy and still without the answers they wanted, MacClain and Jackson's friendship grew.

For Thanksgiving, MacClain taught Jackson how to make a peach pie and told stories of her scrappy days in New Orleans, getting into fights. At night when one woman couldn't sleep, she would call the other.

"I can't wait for the morning to come," Jackson would say.

Neither woman let the other wallow in self-pity. God had a plan and their sons' lives wouldn't be wasted, they would tell each other.

Then in January, a month before MacClain was to face her son's killer, Daniel Ferguson, that confidence started to slip. Her problems had mounted after her landlord had filed an eviction notice and at Christmas she dealt with the anniversary of her son's death.

"Sister, I'm just tired," MacClain told Jackson. "I don't know if I'm going to make it anymore. I don't want to."

"Girl, don't talk that way," Jackson said. "You've got too much work to do."

That was the last time Jackson saw her.

It would take two weeks for MacClain's brother, Lysander Turner, to find his sister dead in her bed behind a locked door. Family members and Jackson had left text messages and voicemails for weeks.

Damion MacClain's killer pleaded guilty Feb. 17 to voluntary manslaughter. That's a 20-year sentence to be combined with the life sentence Ferguson was serving when he killed his fellow inmate. Prosecutors said they tried to call MacClain to tell her the news but the number she gave them didn't work.

A month after her death, no one can answer how MacClain died.

The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office said there is no cause of death listed and officials are waiting on the toxicology report. Turner, one of MacClain's two brothers, couldn't find any signs that she harmed herself and she didn't leave a note behind.

In some ways, her death leaves as many unanswered questions as her son's.

Ferguson's sentencing didn't reveal many details for how Damion MacClain died. A Times Free Press investigation showed he was killed in the middle of the night after his cell door should have been locked.

But District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said gathering any facts in prison is extremely difficult. He said Ferguson told prosecutors the two men were fighting and he claimed partial self-defense.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation labeled Damion MacClain's death a gang-related killing, but Ferguson's attorney, David Dunn, said the evidence he received doesn't tie to any gang violence. He said Damion MacClain was suffocated in a choke hold during the fight.

Today, MacClain's family will bury her where she was raised, near Baton Rouge, La. It's where MacClain was planning a memorial service for her son in June and had invited Jackson to speak about her own dead boy.

Jackson couldn't make it to the funeral. But she said she now understands she will have to be their voice and continue the work MacClain set out to do.

"You know what, I'm not sad about her death. She crossed my path for a short while, I thank God for her. She was a beautiful spirit and a kindred spirit," Jackson said. "Now she's still a strength in me."

Staff writer Tyler Jett contributed to this article.

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

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

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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