Deadly gang attack set in motion by guards at Phillips State Prison

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

The Gwinnett facility had the most slayings of any Georgia prison last year

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence

Lavonia McBride knew something was wrong even if the prison system didn’t.

She kept seeing messages on social media and FaceTime from inmates at Phillips State Prison saying her son had been killed that morning in the prison’s lockdown unit. Yet when she called the prison, she was told that couldn’t be true. Her son was in general population, not lockdown, she was repeatedly told.

On and on it went until McBride, angry and confused, got in her car and began the trip from her home in Augusta to the prison in Buford. She was on I-20 when she got the call that upended her life.

“Are you pulled over?” she remembers the man from the prison asking before delivering the news that her son was dead.

Quafabian McBride, 19, was one of five men slain last year at Phillips State Prison, the most for any Georgia Department of Corrections facility. Several of the killings point to critical lapses in the oversight of inmates with severe mental health issues. McBride’s death points to an even more concerning scenario — that it happened as a result of a gang attack set in motion by officers.

McBride was indeed in the lockdown unit at Phillips when he was killed Sept. 30, according to evidence uncovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was there because officers arranged for it. And he was killed, according to an inmate who claims to be an eyewitness, when a mission to perform a “hit” on a rival gang member went awry.

Credit: Danny Robbins

Credit: Danny Robbins

Records obtained by the AJC show that three officers were removed from their posts in the days after McBride’s death. Two of them have since been linked to the fatal fight in a notice of claim filed last month with the Georgia Department of Administrative Services by the inmate who claims he was a witness.

That inmate, Joseph Williams, says he saw officers make it possible for McBride and two other inmates to attack a rival gang member, Antavious Simon, first by removing Simon’s cellmate and unbolting the cell door and then by bringing McBride to lockdown. However, Simon quickly got in a fatal blow by stabbing McBride in the heart, Williams’ account alleges.

Williams’ notice of claim is the first step in suing the state. It says that the inmate is entitled to sue the state as a whistleblower because he has been repeatedly subjected to retaliation for reporting wrongdoing at Phillips and expects it to continue in light of what he knows of McBride’s death.

“The reason why no one ever provides truthful information about things like this anywhere in the prison system is that the corruption goes so high up that no one is ever sure who can be trusted to address criminal activity by staff,” the claim states.

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Williams’ assertions about the role of officers in McBride’s death are also included in a filing in Gwinnett County Superior Court. The filing is part of a proceeding in which the 37-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for a 2012 murder in Macon seeks to set aside his conviction due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

No criminal charges have been filed against the guards as a result of McBride’s killing, but the circumstances have attracted serious attention from the U.S. Department of Justice as part of its ongoing investigation of the Georgia prison system, the AJC has learned.

The case also adds to a lengthening list of officers and other GDC employees who have been accused of engaging in corrupt practices or leaving inmates exposed to gang retaliation. In the highest profile of those cases, the former warden at Smith State Prison, Brian Adams, faces state racketeering charges for allegedly accepting cash payments as part of a contraband smuggling scheme.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Tyrone Oliver, the new GDC commissioner, said he was briefed on McBride’s killing. Based on what he was told, he said, McBride was allowed into lockdown because an officer was negligent and failed to follow policy. It could not be substantiated that anyone in authority knowingly set up the assault, he said.

Oliver acknowledged, however, that he wasn’t aware of Williams’ statements in the notice of claim or the Gwinnett court filing. If new information comes to light, he said he expects it to be pursued.

“I have zero tolerance for compromised staff or staff cutting corners to allow inmates to attack one another or kill one another,” he said. “If I know about it, I’m going to deal with it and make sure people are held accountable.”

Oliver said Phillips presents a special challenge because nearly all its inmates are considered violent and more than half require some type of mental health treatment.

“If you put that (together), we’ve got to do a little bit better job of making sure we’re slowing our processes down and making sure we’re keeping everybody safe up there,” he said.

Another teen’s gruesome death

The five killings at Phillips, all occurring in the last seven months of the year, signify a sharp upswing in violence at the prison. A close security facility, it houses 800 men who require supervision at all times because they are considered escape risks and have a history of violence.

One killing was reported at Phillips in 2021 and none in 2020.

The 2022 surge is particularly problematic because Phillips is one of only two GDC facilities that house Level IV inmates, the designation used by the prison system to describe those “severely impaired” by mental illness. Of the five homicides, at least three occurred in a dormitory, D-1, used exclusively for Level IV inmates.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

One inmate, 18-year-old Jacob Daniels, died in unusually gruesome fashion. According to arrest warrants, Daniels was attacked by two inmates who stuffed filling from a mattress in his mouth, stabbed him in the throat with an ink pen, cut his wrists with glass from a broken light bulb and broke his wrists and feet.

The alleged attackers, Cody Matthew Brock and James Ellis Collins, have been charged with malice murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.

One mental health worker told the AJC that Daniels’ killing was so horrifying it caused the worker to quit on the spot. The worker declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitive nature of the situation.

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The deaths at Phillips also raise questions about the leadership of the warden, Deshawn Jones, because all but one occurred after he took over last July 1.

Phillips, like most prisons in Georgia, has a significant gang presence. But the situation has grown increasingly dangerous, according to inmates and others interviewed for this story, due to an influx of an aggressive group of inmates affiliated with the Bloods who have been dispersed throughout the facility.

The warden, contacted by the AJC, declined to discuss the killings and referred all questions to the GDC media relations office.

Rigged lock?

In his whistleblower claim, Williams gives a detailed account of an incident he says began with McBride joining two other inmates — all members of a gang calling themselves the Rolax Bloods — in an attack on Simon, allegedly affiliated with the Crips. It ended almost as soon as it began with McBride dead on the floor.

First, the complaint alleges, one officer, Geramy Brown, moved Simon’s cellmate into an exercise cage outside and left the door to Simon’s cell unbolted. Then, it alleges, a second officer, Javaris Jones, brought McBride into the building.

Moving an inmate from the dorm where McBride was housed — Building J — to lockdown requires covering a distance of more than 100 yards and passing through three security checkpoints.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

According to Williams’ claim, McBride opened the door to the cell where the two other Bloods were housed, then joined them in rushing Simon. Williams says he believes the lock mechanism had been rigged so it could be opened with a plastic card.

The fight didn’t last long because Simon had apparently been alerted to the potential danger by the removal of his cellmate, Williams says.

“He stabbed McBride as soon as he entered the room,” Williams says in the notice of claim. “The other two Bloods took off running and shut themselves back (in their cell). McBride tried to run away but quickly fell over dead.”

ExploreFrom 2022: Records reveal 53 Gerogia prison inmates slain

Simon, 19, has been charged with two felonies: obtaining a prohibited item (a shank) and rioting in a penal institution. He admitted to stabbing McBride in the chest but said he acted in self-defense after McBride and another inmate, Dejuan Cannon, attacked him, according to an arrest warrant issued Feb. 23. The warrant says Cannon admitted that he and McBride attacked Simon with sharpened metal objects, but doesn’t give a reason.

Cannon, 22, has been charged with felony murder, aggravated assault and riot in a penal institution, as well as lesser offenses. The felony murder charge — murder without intent to kill — is based on the premise that the attack on Simon caused McBride’s death, according to a warrant in that case.

None of the warrants indicate that any other inmates were involved.

Retaliation claim

The whistleblower claim is the second Williams has filed with the Department of Administrative Services in recent months. He filed the first after he was the victim of a stabbing last July that left him with multiple wounds, one of which caused him to suffer a collapsed lung.

In that claim, Williams says he’s entitled to compensation due to Phillips’ “lazy and callous disregard” for his safety as well as that of others incarcerated there. The claim cites circumstances that he believes have contributed to violence at the prison, including inoperative door locks and surveillance cameras and staffing issues that have made it so one officer is often left to supervise multiple dorms.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

In his Gwinnett County filing, Williams also implicated an officer in the incident in which he was wounded, saying that the officer facilitated a mass attack by gang members on several men by leaving all doors of the building unlocked and then abandoning her post.

After the July attack, Williams was placed in administrative segregation, one of several issues he cites as retaliatory in his whistleblower claim and in the Gwinnett court filing.

“The prison staff has retaliated against me since July 12th by keeping me in administrative segregation for being a stabbing victim who had the audacity to blow the whistle on staff’s involvement and failures to follow established procedures,” the whistleblower claim states.

Williams speculated in the claim that he would be transferred to another facility as further retaliation. In mid-February, he was in fact moved out of Phillips State Prison.

Sergeant fired

On Oct. 1, the day after McBride’s death, Jones and another officer, Sara Patterson, were suspended with pay “pending the outcome of investigations into violations of employee standards of conduct,” according to records in their personnel files.

Brown was fired three days later, records show, for “violating employee standards of conduct, staff misconduct and failure to comply with an investigation.”

Brown, a sergeant, was the most senior of the three, having worked as a guard at Phillips since 2014. He attained the rank of lieutenant in 2020 but was demoted to sergeant with a 5% reduction in pay a year later due to an unspecified “failure to follow policy.”

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

He also was the subject of three written reprimands, including one in which he left a handcuffed inmate in a cell with one who wasn’t cuffed. The handcuffed inmate was severely beaten as a result.

Contacted recently by the AJC, Brown said he had no involvement in McBride’s death and in fact was working in another building that day. He said Patterson allowed McBride to leave his dorm in general population, and then Jones brought him to the lockdown dorm, C-2, both acting without his help or knowledge.

“The C building officer at that time (Jones) called the other building officer (Patterson) where the young guy (McBride) was, and they made it where that guy came down to the building (C-2),” he said. “That had nothing to do with me.”

Our reporting

In a series of stories for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since November 2021, investigative reporter Danny Robbins has revealed how failures of the Georgia prison system have led to a surge of gang activity, suicides and violence. His investigations have detailed inadequate staffing, policies and oversight, as well as issues with corrupt employees. The complete coverage is available at

Asked why he was terminated, Brown said it was because cameras in the building where he was working showed inmates freely going in and out of their cells, a problem, he said, more to do with faulty locks than his supervision.

Jones, the other officer cited by Williams, declined to discuss the killing or respond to Brown’s comments. After four months in suspension, he was terminated Jan. 30 for what a document in his personnel file said was “illegal drug usage.”

Patterson did not respond to messages from the AJC. Records show she was reinstated on Jan. 25.

Mother wants answers

Jan. 5 would have been Quafabian McBride’s 20th birthday. He was interested in art, so, to celebrate, Lavonia McBride had a party that required the guests to draw or paint something on canvas. The artwork is now displayed throughout her home.

“The concept was to create art through pain, so that’s what we did,” she said. “I think we’ll do it for every one of his birthdays from now on.”

She said she had hoped that her son, who had already spent two years in the Richmond County jail when he was convicted of aggravated assault and other charges in 2021, would come home sometime this year.

Credit: Danny Robbins

Credit: Danny Robbins

McBride, a mother of eight who drives a truck for a meat distributor, shared with the AJC a message she received from an inmate — not Williams — informing her that Patterson, Jones and Brown had lost their jobs. Otherwise, she knows little about what happened Sept. 30.

She said she was unaware of Williams’ account of the killing, but she’s ready to deal with it or any other type of evidence that might emerge about her son’s role.

“I can live with the truth,” she said. “If this prison is bringing inmates to fight each other or whatever, that’s a problem. It’s a major problem.”

Data specialists Jennifer Peebles and Stephanie Lamm contributed to this report.

Reporter Danny Robbins has investigated issues in the Georgia prison system since 2015. He can be emailed at