Three die in juvenile custody in Georgia in recent weeks

Credit: Ware County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Ware County Sheriff's Office

Two died within days of each other in separate instances

Three teenagers who were in custody of the Georgia juvenile detention system have died in recent weeks, two of whom were involved in fights, according to public officials and records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Two deaths have come to light after a highly publicized case in which a 17-year-old boy in a South Georgia detention facility died after a “fight game” on Aug. 9th. A former juvenile correctional officer is now facing several charges, including murder, for not stopping the fight. The second person involved in the fight has been charged as a juvenile with involuntary manslaughter.

All three minors were in the care of separate facilities across the state, and the cases are currently under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Multiple deaths of incarcerated children within such a short period of time is highly unusual in the state of Georgia.

Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said in a statement that the department is “deeply saddened” by the loss of life, and that the last time a child died while in-custody was in 2015.

“We continue to pray for the youth’s families and DJJ staff who carry out our mission to operate safe facilities while holding justice-involved youth accountable for their actions,” Oliver said. “As we wait for the outcome of the GBI investigations, the agency is reviewing this anomaly to determine if any changes in our training methods or policies are required.”

One child died after an altercation at the Eastman YDC on Aug. 29th, according to public records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The child became unconscious after they were struck by another incarcerated child.

Joe Smith, coroner for Dodge county, confirmed the child’s death and said they were 16-years-old. He could not provide any further details.

The Department of Juvenile Justice only provided the initial incident report since the case is still under investigation. The file was heavily redacted, and most key details, like when and how the child died, are unclear.

The second case involved a 16-year-old female juvenile who died after she became “unresponsive” at Dalton Youth Detention Center. GBI said that they were contacted by the Dalton Police Department about her death in the early morning hours of Aug. 27th.

Oliver, the Juvenile Justice Commissioner, said that the girl entered the detention center shortly before her death, and she “began experiencing an adverse reaction from what staff learned was an illegal substance she ingested before her admittance into our facility.”

The GBI medical examiner’s office is conducting an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

In the third case, a former juvenile correctional officer was charged with murder after a boy in his custody died during a “fight game” he allowed. The officer, Thomas Lee Hicks, 30, is facing one count of second-degree murder, two counts of second-degree cruelty to children and one count of violating his oath of office. A minor has also since been charged with manslaughter.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation became involved in the case when officials at the Waycross Regional Youth Detention Center requested an independent investigation into an Aug. 9 incident that resulted in a boy losing consciousness while in custody, the state agency said.

At the time, the GBI said only that the boy had become unresponsive in the presence of several other youths and a detention officer. After Hicks’ arrest, the state agency said the boy’s injuries were the result of a fighting game that Hicks did not stop.

The boy was treated by emergency medical personnel and taken to Memorial Health Hospital in Savannah, where he later died, according to the GBI.

In 2019, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted a year-long investigation into failings within the state’s juvenile justice system. The report examined dozens of individual cases, and found that juvenile justice in Georgia is at once both too lenient and too harsh.

The investigation also uncovered brutal conditions within juvenile prisons, and found the system lacks a coordinated effort to confront issues underlying the crimes committed by Georgia teens, such as extreme poverty, untreated mental illness, the allure of street gangs, and the pervasiveness of guns.