Gang members using violence to extort inmates, families at Ga. prison for women

The demands for money started nearly a year ago. Sometimes small amounts, $10 or so; other times more, into the hundreds.

Pamela Dixon knew she was being extorted. But she also knew she had to pay if she wanted to ensure that her daughter survived at Pulaski State Prison. So she has paid, by her estimation more than $10,000.

“I feel like I’ve been dealing with the mob,” she said.

Inside Georgia’s second largest prison for women, gang members have routinely used threats of violence to shake down inmates and their families for virtually everything, even the ability to take a shower or sleep in an assigned room.

Extortion, at least on a widespread scale, isn’t typically associated with women’s prisons. But at Pulaski, it has clearly taken hold, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found through interviews and documents, many provided by Dixon. That adds yet another dimension to the gang culture that has overwhelmed the Hawkinsville prison and its depleted security staff.

“When the girls don’t have money anymore, they get beat up,” said the mother of one inmate, who asked not to be identified for fear that her daughter would face retribution.

For Dixon, a 65-year-old who lives in Ellijay, paying for her daughter’s protection has taken both a financial and emotional toll, a nightmarish blur of chilling threats and spiraling Cash App payments that have led her to do whatever she can to make the issue known.

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Pamela Dixon estimates that she has paid more than $10,000 in extortion money to ensure that her daughter Mary Elizabeth Lewis survives at Pulaski State Prison. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Pamela Dixon estimates that she has paid more than $10,000 in extortion money to ensure that her daughter Mary Elizabeth Lewis survives at Pulaski State Prison. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Pamela Dixon estimates that she has paid more than $10,000 in extortion money to ensure that her daughter Mary Elizabeth Lewis survives at Pulaski State Prison. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Dixon estimates she has paid between $10,000 and $12,000 in protection money since her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Lewis, arrived at Pulaski last July to begin serving a prison sentence of at least nine years for trafficking methamphetamine. Dixon and her 72-year-old husband, a disabled Vietnam vet, live on their Social Security and VA benefits, so she borrowed from friends and family members to get much of the money, she said

For the first few months, Dixon dealt with the situation quietly, directing the money to Cash App accounts supplied by her daughter. But recently, those extorting the 39-year-old Lewis have grown bolder, calling Dixon directly on the prison’s recorded phone lines and graphically describing how her daughter would suffer if their demands weren’t met.

“It’s gotten to where I see ‘Pulaski’ come up on my phone and I feel like I have PTSD,” said Dixon, who breathes with the aid of an oxygen concentrator. “As soon as I see it, I have to do a breathing treatment. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”

When the calls started, Dixon reached out to numerous administrators with the Georgia Department of Corrections, including Pulaski Warden Meosha McMillan. But no one with the agency took action until, in desperation, Dixon recorded one of the calls and sent it to a GDC official.

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Pamela Dixon shows a picture of her daughter Mary Elizabeth Lewis, who is an inmate in Pulaski State Prison. After repeated extortion calls from the prison threatening her daughter, Dixon says, “It’s gotten to where I see ‘Pulaski’ come up on my phone and I feel like I have PTSD,” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Pamela Dixon shows a picture of her daughter Mary Elizabeth Lewis, who is an inmate in Pulaski State Prison. After repeated extortion calls from the prison threatening her daughter, Dixon says, “It’s gotten to where I see ‘Pulaski’ come up on my phone and I feel like I have PTSD,” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Pamela Dixon shows a picture of her daughter Mary Elizabeth Lewis, who is an inmate in Pulaski State Prison. After repeated extortion calls from the prison threatening her daughter, Dixon says, “It’s gotten to where I see ‘Pulaski’ come up on my phone and I feel like I have PTSD,” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On that call, recorded May 30, an inmate tells Dixon that Lewis will have “permanent marks on her face” if Dixon doesn’t send $300 via Cash App that evening.

“By 8 o’clock, I will be slicing and dicing,” the caller says.

Dixon sent the recording to Pamela Wiggins, the GDC administrator who oversees women’s facilities, and, in a matter of hours, Lewis was moved to protective custody, where she remains.

“I reported this umpteen times and they did nothing until they got that recording and heard for themselves,” Dixon said.

Neither Wiggins, McMillan nor Joan Heath, the GDC’s chief spokesperson, responded to AJC emails seeking comment.

More violence

At Pulaski, one of four GDC facilities for women, gang violence is an everyday problem, according to those who are living it, and nothing has changed even with the public exposure resulting from an AJC investigation published in March.

The AJC article revealed several troubling incidents, including the allegations of two inmates, Norma Juarez-Morales and Carla Cardenas-Becarra, who said they were brutally assaulted by gang members after Juarez-Morales refused to pay for protection.

Since then, the AJC has documented at least six more incidents in which inmates were savagely beaten. One inmate was twice bitten on her breast and stabbed in the leg. Another was stabbed on the bridge of her nose. And yet another was beaten with a car jack.

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Mary Elizabeth Lewis was taken to the hospital after suffering a gash in her mouth and two black eyes in May. She told prison officials she had fallen, but her mother believes she was attacked by other inmates running an extortion racket.

Credit: Contributed

Mary Elizabeth Lewis was taken to the hospital after suffering a gash in her mouth and two black eyes in May. She told prison officials she had fallen, but her mother believes she was attacked by other inmates running an extortion racket.

Credit: Contributed

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Mary Elizabeth Lewis was taken to the hospital after suffering a gash in her mouth and two black eyes in May. She told prison officials she had fallen, but her mother believes she was attacked by other inmates running an extortion racket.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

In a May email, a Pulaski inmate described for her daughter a chaotic environment that has made some fearful even to leave their rooms.

“The gangs are going wild in here right down in (dorms) 8 and 9,” the inmate wrote. “They are lining people up and just beating them up. They are making them Cash App to take showers, to use the phone, to come out of their rooms!!! It’s crazy.”

The inmate’s daughter gave the AJC permission to quote the email as long as her mother wasn’t identified.

Extortion can be prosecuted as a felony under both state and federal statutes, although a federal prosecution would require a connection to interstate communication.

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Pamela Dixon sent $300 via Cash App after a caller threatened to beat up her daughter in Pulaski Prison. (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

Pamela Dixon sent $300 via Cash App after a caller threatened to beat up her daughter in Pulaski Prison. (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Pamela Dixon sent $300 via Cash App after a caller threatened to beat up her daughter in Pulaski Prison. (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Charges could also be brought under gang and RICO statutes, according to Atlanta attorney Vic Hartman, a former FBI field agent and supervisor. In an email to the AJC, Hartman said he believes the extortion at Pulaski should be considered serious enough for the FBI to investigate.

“Based on the facts you have presented, I believe the FBI would be fully warranted to initiate an investigation into this matter,” he wrote.

Please send money

A former municipal court clerk in Dalton, Dixon recently recorded in a spiral notebook all the Cash App payments she had made on her daughter’s behalf. The entries fill eight pages.

Emails provided by Dixon show her daughter’s desperation as she sought money.

“Mom tomorrow is the last day of the month PLEASE send $cashcowflow6 some money,” Lewis wrote on March 30. “I told her I’d send 200 so whatever you can do but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE send her something, so I don’t have problems tomorrow.”

Dixon said the first time someone other than her daughter contacted her was April 8. Dixon said she was told she needed to send money immediately if she wanted to see Lewis “make it out of this prison.”

“My jaw dropped,” she said.

Not long after that call, Dixon said, she contacted McMillan. The call was returned by a deputy warden, KaSann Mahogany, and it quickly became evident, Dixon said, that no one at Pulaski was going to act.

Mahogany informed Dixon that Lewis was in the room with her and was saying everything was fine. Dixon said she realized her daughter was fearful of being labeled a snitch, so she ended the conversation.

“I knew then not to say another word,” Dixon said.

The last straw

By the end of May, however, circumstances convinced Dixon she could no longer be silent.

Late in the evening of May 20, Lewis was hospitalized for treatment of a gash in her mouth and two black eyes. Lewis’ explanation to the prison staff, according to the incident report, was that she had slipped and fallen. Dixon suspected that she’d been beaten.

The next day, Dixon said, she was stunned by another call from the prison. Lewis made the call, but then other inmates took the phone and beat her with it as the line remained open.

“I never did get to talk to (Lewis), but I kept listening,” Dixon said. “It was a 10-minute conversation, all of it listening to her getting hit.”

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After Dixon told the AJC about that call, the newspaper provided her with a digital recorder. When she was threatened again on May 30, she used it.

The caller told Dixon that her daughter owed $250, plus $50 as “tax.” The extra $50 was for being late and also for Lewis’ protection, “to keep other people off her ass,” the caller said.

“I don’t take no losses,” the caller said. “If I let her (screw) me over, then I gotta let the next one (screw) me over. I ain’t never gonna let nobody (screw) me over. Like there was an old woman in here. She was like 72 years old, 72, 74. I beat her ass too for my money.”

Dixon sent the money that day. Two days later, she sent the recording to Wiggins along with an email in which she poured out all that she and her daughter had endured.

“Can you not move her out of that prison to another one...,” Dixon wrote. My daughter is going to wind up dead.”

Within hours, the warden informed Dixon that Lewis had been placed in protective custody.

Dixon said she’s relieved, but she knows the problem goes well beyond one person. The state needs to act boldly, she said.

“If they can’t get that prison under control, then get the National Guard in there,” she said. “And the people doing this, put them in solitary confinement. My daughter is safe for the moment, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way.”

To contact the investigations team, email us at AJCinvestigations@ajc.com

About this story

In a series of stories for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since fall, investigative journalist Danny Robbins has revealed the worsening violence in Georgia prisons. This story is based on his interviews with a dozen inmates, former inmates and family members. Robbins also obtained Georgia Department of Corrections incident reports and reviewed email and text messages, as well as payment records and an audio recording provided by the mother of one incarcerated woman.

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