At a Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice prison, a 14-year-old inmate identified only as N.T. experienced numerous beatings and a sexual assault. He is now suing the state, alleging that officials failed to ensure his safety. AJC FILE PHOTO
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Beaten and raped in juvenile prison, youth sought refuge in fantasy

In the universe that N.T. made, heroic characters battle the forces of evil. Across hundreds of pages, his stories and illustrations search for order in chaos, for safe places in a menacing world.

“This is what he did to escape,” said one of N.T.’s lawyers, Woody Sampson. “He created this fantasy.”

The fantasy was N.T.’s response to the reality that surrounded him in a Georgia prison for juveniles, where he was the victim of repeated assaults by other inmates: choked, punched and, ultimately, raped in a gymnasium restroom when he was 14.

More than eight years later, N.T. settled a lawsuit last month alleging that prison guards and state officials failed to protect him during his five years in custody. His $1.5 million settlement is at least the fourth in the past decade involving rape and other violence in Georgia’s juvenile prisons.

State officials agreed to pay N.T. only after their lawyers aggressively fought his lawsuit in federal court. The lawyers suggested, repeatedly, that what N.T. called rape was “voluntary sexual contact” — even though he was two years younger than the legal age of consent when the assault occurred.

» PREVIOUSLY: Deadly consequences: Murder case exposes a system’s failings

» MORE: Georgia’s juvenile prisons: Assaults by guards, strip searches, chaos

The case underscores the pervasive brutality in the juvenile prisons, which incarcerate children as young as 13. In a series of articles last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the seven prisons had recorded more than 3,500 assaults, including about 150 sexual assaults, since 2015. Moreover, prison guards frequently engaged in some of the most egregious brutality, the newspaper found. The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice fired at least five dozen juvenile corrections officers for using excessive force during the past five years. The agency sought criminal charges against just six of the officers.

The violence has persisted through leadership changes in the department, through legislative reform attempts, and through a decade of federal oversight that ended in 2009.

Atlanta attorney Woody Sampson represents a former juvenile prisoner who was repeatedly assaulted in state custody. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In 2011, a month before N.T. was assaulted at the Augusta Youth Development Campus, an inmate there beat another youth to death in his cell. At the time, N.T.’s lawsuit contended, officials at Augusta fostered a “climate of lax supervision, chronic violence and widespread sexual abuse.”

The same year, an inmate at the juvenile prison in Eastman beat another youth so severely that he suffered a brain injury that still hampers his speech and the use of his right arm and right leg. A few months later, the same inmate beat and tried to rape a second youth. The state paid $4.5 million to settle lawsuits over the two assaults.

N.T. experienced serious psychological trauma during his time in prison, from the assaults and from long stretches in solitary confinement, according to court filings, which identify him only by his initials.

“He was terrorized,” said Sampson, his lawyer. “Imagine being a kid and worrying every day, ‘I’m going to have to battle somebody today.’ The terror that somebody must feel — I can’t even imagine what that’s like.”

Serial assaults

N.T. entered the Augusta prison in March 2011 to serve a five-year sentence for aggravated assault after he stabbed his father during a fight. Sampson said N.T., who had experienced physical abuse as a child, acted in self-defense.

Within three weeks of arriving at Augusta, N.T. was attacked by a youth who choked him until he almost lost consciousness. It was the first in a series of 10 assaults that N.T. would experience by the end of the year.

On May 9, 2011, for example, a youth put him in a choke hold and punched him in the face. On May 10, a gang member struck him in the face. On May 17, another prisoner punched him in the back of the head.

N.T. also was attacked in July, in August and in September. In October, he was sent to a hospital emergency room with a cut above his left eye from another assault.

That summer, according to court records, N.T. had told a counselor about threats of sexual assaults and coercion to perform sex acts. Three times he had complained to his psychiatrist about increased bullying.

The only protection the prison offered, court filings say, was to place N.T. in solitary confinement. Locked alone in a cell 23 hours a day, isolated from virtually all human contact, he tried to hang himself at least once. He slit his wrists. He tried to drown himself by submerging his face in a toilet bowl.

On a Sunday afternoon in December 2011, N.T. was one of 26 inmates in the prison gymnasium for recreation time. Half, including N.T., were assigned to a unit for youths with mental health issues. The others were sex offenders.

Among them was a 17-year-old serving time for sodomizing a 9-month-old.

» VIDEOS: Excerpts of chaos and violence in Georgia’s youth prisons

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In a restroom left unlocked and unsupervised by corrections officers, the 17-year-old raped N.T., according to court documents. N.T. “acquiesced out of fear that he would be violently assaulted if he resisted,” his lawyers said in court filings.

N.T. later gave conflicting statements to agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. At first, he said he was forcibly raped. Later, he said he had consented to at least some of the sex acts. Either way, investigators concluded, federal law defines what happened to him as rape.

Authorities charged Devin Scott Ardoin as an adult with aggravated child molestation. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and served no additional prison time.

‘Blame the victim’

From the start, corrections officers cast doubt on whether a sexual assault had actually occurred.

A former corrections officer named in N.T.’s lawsuit, one of 15 defendants, alleged in court filings that the boy “had a history of inappropriate aggressive conduct and inappropriate sexual misconduct prior to and during his incarceration.”

The former officer gave no details of the purported misconduct.

“It’s the most egregious case of blame the victim I’ve ever heard of.” —Woody Sampson, lawyer for N.T.

The accused assailant, according to the officer’s lawyer, was “approximately the same size” as N.T. and had “a good resident history” with “no history of being a sexual predator” in the prison.

The lawyer did not respond to requests for an interview.

The day of the assault, N.T. “looked embarrassed” when he emerged from the restroom, the former officer said in court filings. While speaking with a nurse in the prison’s medical unit, the officer said, N.T. “admitted” to participating in a “sexual encounter.”

The Georgia attorney general’s office, representing defendants still employed by the Department of Juvenile Justice, depicted N.T. as anything but a victim.

» RELATED: How fear, politics forged Georgia’s punitive juvenile laws

» MORE: ‘Second Chance Court’ shows promising results

State lawyers denied that N.T. had asked for help with bullying, saying that he had only “occasionally” told a counselor he had been in fights with other prisoners. In one pleading, the lawyers said N.T. had spoken to counselors only in general terms about “issues of sexuality and homosexuality.”

“Evidence indicates (the incident) may have involved voluntary sexual contact with another youth,” state lawyers wrote in court papers, “and it occurred due to deliberate efforts to conceal themselves from supervising officers rather than from any officer’s deliberate indifference.”

The state’s filings do not mention that N.T. was two years younger than the age of consent.

Katie Byrd, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment on the case.

Sampson, N.T.’s lawyer, described the state’s position as outrageous.

“It’s the most egregious case of blame the victim I’ve ever heard of,” Sampson said in an interview.

“It wasn’t consensual,” Sampson said. “But it doesn’t matter. He was 14. This (other) guy was 17. Had they been out in the general public and had had ‘consensual’ sex, the 17-year-old would have been arrested for statutory rape. I don’t understand under what scenario the state could claim it was consensual.”

No walls

N.T. is 23 now, taller and stockier than the 14-year-old who went to prison nearly nine years ago. He enrolled in college after his release but dropped out when pursuing his lawsuit became too stressful. Now that the case is settled, he plans to start a business that will buy, renovate and resell houses in foreclosure.

“I can finally move on with my life,” he said in a recent interview in Sampson’s office. “I feel really relieved.”

An introvert by nature, he was an easy target for older inmates when he entered prison, he said.

“I basically had to become hard. I basically had to fight. I basically had to win fights.”

But when he turned his attention to his fantasy stories and anime-style artwork, “I couldn’t see jail any more,” he said. He completed a novel — the first in one of several series he has envisioned — in two years. The manuscript is 299 pages of meticulously lettered prose, accompanied by a detailed map of a world fought over by competing societies.

“The Outcasted” centers on a city called Agaroth. The city is protected not by walls, he writes, but by magic.

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