Editor’s note: A section of this story on one officer’s background has been corrected.
AMERICUS - The teenage inmate was in handcuffs, each arm in the grasp of corrections officers. Moments earlier, in a prison day room, he had slung a TV-set remote control at Officer Danny Figueroa. Now, as Figueroa walked by, the teen cursed at him. Figueroa stopped the other two officers and said, “Let me show you how to do it.”
With that, Figueroa allegedly kicked the youth in the shins.
Figueroa wasn’t finished. When the prisoner reached his cell, still in handcuffs, Figueroa grabbed him off the bed and slammed his head at least twice into the concrete-block wall.
The assault at the Sumter Youth Development Campus in Americus, documented in internal reports, highlights the brutality that permeates Georgia’s juvenile prisons, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. While juveniles frequently attack one another, as well as their guards, it is corrections officers who commit some of the most egregious acts.
The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice fired at least 60 officers from 2015 to 2018 for using excessive force on youths, the Journal-Constitution found by reviewing personnel files, investigators’ reports, law enforcement certification records and other documents. At least six more officers resigned under investigation of their use of force.
But criminal charges against the department’s officers are exceedingly rare.
Since 2015, the department has sought charges against just six officers across the state for physically assaulting prisoners. Five other officers have been charged during that time with having sexual relationships with prisoners, one with setting up fights among youths and another with neglecting an inmate who tried to hang himself.
By contrast, the agency charged at least 32 juveniles from the Sumter prison alone for attacking officers during the same period. Among them were youths who touched female officers’ buttocks and others who doused officers with urine. In two-thirds of the cases, charges included obstruction of law-enforcement officers, an expansively defined offense that nonetheless sent at least two juveniles from Sumter to adult prison.
In all, the state conducted more than 1,600 internal investigations of officers accused of misconduct, including physically and emotionally mistreating youths in their custody. Many of these acts appeared to violate the civil rights of the juveniles. At the same time, they perpetuated the violence that sent many of the youths to prison in the first place.
For officers at the state’s seven youth prisons and 19 regional jails for juveniles, the work is neither easy nor financially rewarding. With a starting salary of not quite $28,000, the job attracts few applicants who have completed more than a high school education. Some have criminal records themselves. And once they’re hired, they must contend with emotionally volatile, often violent teenagers confined in what a Georgia prosecutor recently described as a gladiator pit.
Frequently, neither the prisoners nor the officers seem able to control their impulses.
When Officer Brandon Bell refused to let a prisoner out of his cell to shower, the youth splashed urine on him. Bell returned to the youth’s cell a few minutes later to “ask him why he did what he did,” the officer later wrote. The youth shoved him, Bell said, and “that is when things escalated. … A push went to a shove. Then it just happen(ed).”
At least one other officer watched as Bell and the youth traded punches and brawled inside the cell. Finally, other officers intervened.
Shortly before he was fired, an investigator asked Bell what he thought he did wrong.
“Everything,” Bell answered.
Chronic staffing shortages make keeping order even more difficult. The turnover rate among entry-level officers reached 130% for the 12 months ending June 30. As recently as Sept. 30, more than half of all corrections officers’ positions in the seven youth prisons were vacant.
Supervisors frequently order officers to work overtime, keeping them on duty in a highly stressful setting even longer than their standard 12-hour shifts. The Department of Juvenile Justice does not limit the number of consecutive overtime shifts officers may work.
Officer Joseph Hooks III was on his 14th hour at work for the third day in a row at Sumter when a youth hit him in the face with a peanut butter sandwich. “Out of instinct,” Hooks told an investigator, he punched the youth multiple times in the chest, the abdomen and possibly the head. Hooks said excessive overtime had left him “frustrated and agitated.”
The department sanctioned Hooks for employee misconduct, but he kept his job.
Less than three months later, Hooks threw an uncooperative youth onto a concrete floor, apparently knocking the boy unconscious, an internal investigation found.
This time, the department fired Hooks.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Often, the agency overlooks multiple transgressions by its officers.
Willie James Brown, for example, went to work at Sumter in June 2014, shortly after a state prison for adults fired him. By the following February, Brown had been reprimanded four times for skipping work. In March 2015, a supervisor cited him for disobeying an order. In April, he was caught sleeping on the job and was told he would be fired if it happened again. In July, it happened again, but he received another warning.
Over the next three years, internal investigations found, Brown punched a youth who he said “got in my face.” He knocked a youth out of his chair for eating applesauce without a utensil. He punched a youth he had accused of stealing his lunch. He engaged in a shoving match with a prisoner who “came toward” him, and he pushed another youth who he thought was trying to steal snacks.
Brown still works at Sumter.
He did not respond to a request for an interview. Despite the repeated altercations, he has never faced charges for assaulting youths in his custody.
Danny Figueroa faced no criminal charges, either, after attacking the prisoner in handcuffs. A supervisor threw away an initial report on the incident, and video footage of a critical part of the confrontation disappeared. It was just another violent episode in a violent place.
When Willie Mae Harden visited her grandson at Sumter, he complained of feeling threatened by the network of gangs that seemed to control the prison. Once, Harden said, he had been placed “in the hole” — an isolation cell — after other prisoners attacked him. At the time, he was 14.
“I told him just try to stay away from people,” Harden said in an interview. “I always said, ‘You stay away from gangs.’”
When she visited the prison, Harden said, corrections officers seemed most concerned about checking for contraband in the snacks she tried to give her grandson.
“It’s very controlled,” she said.
The environment inside the juvenile prisons, which hold children as young as 13, almost seems designed to be dehumanizing.
Prisoners spend much of every day alone in their cells, behind locked metal doors. They may be placed in handcuffs for almost any infraction. Even mealtimes are reduced, in officers’ slang, to a demeaning term: “feed-offs.”
Nevertheless, meals are highly structured, with food doled out in precise amounts. One youth ended up with a broken arm after an officer handcuffed and dragged him out of the cafeteria because he grabbed an extra sandwich at lunch.
More troubling, officers routinely perform strip searches on both male and female juveniles, checking for weapons, drugs or unauthorized food.
These searches occur when a youth enters a facility for the first time. They take place after officers escort a youth to a medical appointment, court appearance or any other excursion outside the prison. And they are required every time a youth receives a visit — from lawyers, from friends, from brothers or sisters, from parents or grandparents.
“The entire body will be visually checked,” a Department of Juvenile Justice policy says. The search is supposed to examine a youth’s hair, ears, mouth, armpits, hands, feet, inner thighs, pubic area and outer rectum.
These searches are a necessary precaution, said Tyrone Oliver, who became the state’s juvenile justice commissioner in July.
“At the end of the day, we have to operate safe, secure facilities,” Oliver said in an interview. “The youths going in quickly realize they’re not back at home.”
Sometimes, youths undergo searches more than once over the same incident. In 2015, for example, an officer strip-searched a youth at Sumter after he said his older brother gave him a Starburst candy during visitation. The officer supervising the visit suspected it was an edible cannabis product, but the search turned up nothing. Officers took the youth to a hospital for a drug test — and strip-searched him again afterward.
A report on the incident did not mention the results of the drug test.
Thirteen states, including Texas and Florida, prohibit strip searches of juveniles unless officers have a reasonable suspicion that a youth has concealed a prohibited item. Kentucky followed a policy similar to Georgia’s until 2015, when a federal judge signaled that he was prepared to declare it unconstitutional.
Indiscriminate strip searches reinforce the imbalance of power between corrections officers and the youths they supervise, said Jessica Feierman, senior managing partner of the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy organization.
“It’s going to be very hard for a young person to be able to develop trust if the first thing they encounter in detention is a strip search,” Feierman said. Corrections officers are “not taking the time to think about whether they’re going to find something. But you can be assured you’re causing stress to young people by subjecting them to strip searches, and for many, this may be a trauma that has a lasting impact.”
‘Secured to the floor’
One day in January 2017 at Sumter, corrections officers ordered a group of youths to line up outside their cells. A boy who had been playing cards with other prisoners in a day room refused.
Seconds after a supervisor called for help to “escort” the youth, three black-shirted officers appeared in the day room and encircled the boy, who is seen on surveillance video sitting in silence at the card table.
The officers came from one of two elite units deployed by the Department of Juvenile Justice to quell group disturbances, confiscate contraband and subdue youths who are deemed uncooperative. One unit is called the Security Response Team, or SERT; the other, the Security Management and Response Team. Department employees pronounce the latter’s acronym, SMRT, as “smart.”
Officers from both teams typically patrol the prisons in squads of three or four, swooping into trouble spots to quickly establish order. A photograph on the department’s website emphasizes SMRT’s hardcore image: The unit’s officers pose in full riot gear, two of them brandishing military-style assault rifles.
But incident reports, internal investigations and surveillance video from the youth prisons suggest that officers from the special units sometimes do less to defuse tense situations than to escalate them into violent confrontations.
Two SERT officers who surrounded the youth in the day room had troublesome histories.
Frank Lewis had been arrested five times between 2002 and 2015 for charges that included marijuana possession and driving under the influence. He had completed 12 months’ probation just 60 days before he started work at Sumter in 2016.
Contavious Mahome had been reprimanded at Sumter in 2014 for using excessive force on a youth who refused to enter his cell. What Mahome called “physical intervention,” a report said, had left the youth with a cut on his right eye.
In the day room that January, two of the officers grabbed the youth’s arms, and the third took hold of his legs. Surveillance video shows the three officers lifting the squirming boy into the air, to about chest high, and then throwing him onto the concrete floor.
After they handcuffed the youth, they picked him up again — and, again, they threw him to the floor.
As they led the youth down a corridor to his cell, a second boy ran into the day room, protesting his friend’s treatment while hopping from chair to chair. Video shows that when the SERT officers returned to the day room, the youth tried to pull away and dropped to his knees before they placed him in handcuffs.
Then, as they had with the first boy, they lifted the youth, held him parallel to the floor and, with what appeared to be greater force than they had used with the first youth, slammed him onto the concrete. His hips and the back of his head appeared to take the brunt of the impact.
The youth lay still for a few seconds, either dazed or unconscious, before the officers lifted him to his feet.
He walked unsteadily as they led him toward the prison’s medical unit. On video, one of the officers can be heard saying on his portable radio: “She gave him verbals. Youth refused all verbals.”
A prison nurse sent the youth to the hospital, where he was apparently treated for a concussion.
The following day, a state investigator questioned the three SERT officers. None acknowledged what the video showed: that they had thrown both youths onto the floor.
“Youth was not dropped or thrown to the floor,” Mahome said, according to the investigator’s notes. “Youth was secured to the floor.”
The investigator asked him again about the second boy.
“We secured the youth to the floor,” Mahome said.
“He was secured to the floor.”
The Department of Juvenile Justice fired all three officers. It filed no criminal charges, however.
Oliver, the new juvenile justice commissioner, recently said he would not tolerate officers’ mistreatment of prisoners. After viewing the video of this incident, he said, “If you see that today, there will be charges.”
Neither Christopher Lewis, the third officer involved in the incident, nor Frank Lewis responded to requests for interview.
Of the three officers, only Mahome remained in law enforcement. He is now a police officer in Reynolds, a town of 1,000 in Middle Georgia.
In a recent telephone interview during his evening patrols, Mahome said he had no regrets about the episode. Many officers feel unsafe inside the prison, he said, and they think lax discipline emboldens the prisoners.
“Whatever they feel like they can get away with,” he said, referring to the inmates, “that’s what they’re going to do.”
Mahome said he doubted the incident harmed either youth, even the one who went to the hospital with a head injury.
“He was just put on the floor a little harder than he would like it.”
‘How to do it’
Danny Figueroa worked in a SMRT unit, having earned the promotion — and the extra $320 a month in pay — within a year of joining the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2013.
At Sumter one day in June 2017, as officers directed a group of prisoners out of a day room, a youth slung a remote control for the television set in what Figueroa later described as an aggressive manner.
Figueroa found the youth’s behavior unacceptable. He ordered two other officers to place the youth in handcuffs and lock him in his cell. The youth later said he “bucked,” squirming against the handcuffs and the officers holding his upper arms. As Figueroa walked by, the youth muttered, “Bitch.”
The officer stopped.
“Let me show you how to do it,” Figueroa told the other officers, according to an internal investigative report, before allegedly kicking and trying to trip the youth.
When he spoke to an investigator, Figueroa denied mistreating the youth. He said he had merely demonstrated to other officers a proper technique for escorting prisoners.
Figueroa said he went with the other officers to the youth’s cell to open doors for them along the way. At the cell, he said, he “provided additional assistance.”
Three officers, however, told the investigator that Figueroa entered the cell, pulled the handcuffed youth off his bed and threw him, headfirst, into the concrete-block wall.
“At the end of the day, we have to operate safe, secure facilities. ... The youths going in quickly realize they’re not back at home.” —Tyrone Oliver, who became the state’s juvenile justice commissioner in July
One of the officers used a hand-held video camera to record the use of force, as department policy encourages. But when the incident ended, the officer handed over the camera to Figueroa.
What happened next is uncertain. Figueroa said he gave the camera to a different officer, who said she passed it to yet another — who said he did not remember anything about a camera.
Neither the camera nor the footage is likely to ever surface, the investigator noted.
At the same time, according to the investigator’s report, a commanding officer tossed Figueroa’s initial written report into the trash. The commander later said she thought the incident had involved merely a “passive escort” that didn’t need to be documented.
The incident came to light nine days later when a prison official reviewed a grievance form filed by the youth whom Figueroa allegedly assaulted. The internal investigation substantiated that Figueroa had mistreated the youth, but it did not resolve inconsistent statements about whether he kicked or tripped the prisoner.
Figueroa did not respond to recent requests for an interview.
After the investigation, officials transferred Figueroa to the juvenile prison in Augusta “for disciplinary reasons,” according to his personnel file. He resigned less than a month later, effective immediately.
In a letter to the Augusta prison’s director, Figueroa made no mention of the incident at Sumter.
“After careful thought and consideration, I have decided to resign from my position,” he wrote. “I’d like to thank you for providing me with an opportunity to develop my skill set while gaining a new work experience.”
Two days later, Figueroa started a new job in Columbia County, just outside Augusta: deputy sheriff.
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