Inmate drug deaths soar at state prisons
Stephen Buttery held onto one hope when his daughter, Christina, was sentenced to prison for trafficking meth. As long as she was in prison, he figured, she wouldn’t be able to use the drugs that had long upended her life.
He would soon realize that he’d been wrong. And when he came to that realization, he came to it in the most painful way imaginable.
Four days before last Christmas, he learned that Christina was dead. She had been found unresponsive in her bunk at Pulaski State Prison, and nothing could be done to revive her. The cause: a toxic mix of meth and fentanyl.
Christina Buttery’s death is part of yet another grim reality of the corruption that grips the Georgia Department of Corrections. Prisons are supposed to be secure, drug-free zones that support rehabilitation. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has uncovered a spike in overdose deaths that reveals in startling terms the prevalence of illicit drugs inside Georgia’s prisons.
In 2018, two Georgia prisoners died from drug overdoses. Since then, the number has grown dramatically. Between 2019 and 2022, at least 49 Georgia prisoners died from overdoses. So far this year, medical examiners have determined that five inmates have died from accidental overdoses, but they have yet to rule on the causes of many other prison deaths.
How can so many die from overdoses in a place that’s supposed to be free of drugs? It’s a question that Stephen Buttery, his grief for his “Nina” still raw, thinks about every day.
“I’m so angry I can’t stand it,” he said. “People that get put in our (prison) system, we spend a whole bunch of money on everything but trying to take care of (them). I feel like the system is completely screwed up.”
Georgia prisoners, the AJC found, have died from using all manner of drugs: meth, fentanyl, synthetic cannabinoids, codeine and morphine. Even a drug that has only recently shown up on the street, a synthetic opioid known as pyro, has killed a Georgia inmate.
Georgia prison officials apparently didn’t recognize that illicit drugs caused some of the deaths, the AJC’s investigation shows.
The AJC found 13 cases in which the Department of Corrections reported prisoners died of natural causes while medical examiners later determined the deaths were caused by drug overdoses and ruled them accidental.
That scenario raises significant questions about the GDC’s readiness to deal with drug overdoses in real time, as well as its ability to understand the extent of the problem.
Medical examiners also reported that meth toxicity contributed to the deaths of two prisoners who were homicide victims. One victim died of smoke inhalation from fires set in his cell. The other was beaten to death.
In a statement emailed to the AJC, the Department of Corrections didn’t respond to the question of whether it considered the rising number of fatal overdoses to be a significant problem. Instead, the GDC asserted that it has saved lives by taking action in possible overdose cases.
The GDC’s response, though, underscores the pervasiveness of drugs in the prison system. This year alone, said department spokesperson Joan Heath, in 59 cases prisoners were hospitalized for potential overdoses but survived.
As far as the 13 overdose deaths the GDC reported as “natural,” Heath said deaths are initially labeled that way when they’re not clearly due to trauma. They are later reclassified, she said, when death certificates are completed. Ten of those overdose deaths have now been reclassified, she said.
However, years after many of the 13 deaths, the GDC records obtained by the AJC still list them as natural. Records also show that the GDC labels numerous deaths as “undetermined,” and that was the case with 31 deaths that medical examiners later ruled to be accidental drug overdoses.
Can this be prevented?
Dealing with overdoses is particularly important in Georgia, where drugs regularly flow in and out of state prisons.
An AJC investigation published last month found that since 2018 hundreds of correctional officers working in Georgia prisons have been arrested for smuggling illicit drugs.
Moreover, a series of federal prosecutions have shown Georgia’s prisons to be breeding grounds for trafficking rings that have distributed drugs both within the prison system and throughout Georgia. Often, the networks relied on contraband supplied by GDC employees.
The biggest cause of fatal overdoses in GDC facilities, the AJC found, is meth. It has been cited as a cause in at least 45 deaths since 2018.
Fentanyl is another significant cause, sometimes combined with meth and synthetic cannabinoids. Fentanyl was first listed as a cause of death for a Georgia prisoner in June 2021. Since then, at least eight more prisoners have died from overdoses that included the potent synthetic opioid.
Synthetic cannabinoids have caused 13 prisoner deaths in Georgia, often in combination with other drugs. The drug, known as K2 or “spice,” can wreak havoc in prisons even when it isn’t fatal, causing users to become agitated and have hallucinations and seizures.
While prisons and jails across the country have also seen increases in drug overdoses, solutions exist. Experts said most deaths can be avoided with readily available rescue medications and opportunities for treatment, especially when it comes to opioid addiction.
After the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported in 2019 the highest overdose death rate of any correctional system in the nation, it implemented a comprehensive substance-use disorder program.
The program, started in January 2020, has posted measurable results: a 54% reduction in the overdose death rate, according to a report released this month. That reduction happened while overdose deaths in the community at large continued to rise.
The California system says its program doesn’t just save lives, it saves money by reducing hospitalizations and emergency department visits.
“I think every opioid overdose is preventable, whether it’s in the community or in a facility,” said Dr. Justin Berk, an assistant professor in the Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University.
From 2020-2022, Berk served as the medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. In 2016, Rhode Island had implemented the first statewide comprehensive treatment program for incarcerated people with opioid use disorder. Berk said treatment reduced overdoses after release from prison and prevented them during incarceration.
“We have not had a fatal overdose in years” in Rhode Island’s prisons, he said.
In its statement, the GDC pointed to several steps it has taken to deal with substance abuse. One is a pilot program for medication-assisted treatment of addiction. Another is its Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Centers.
More than 12,000 people have completed the RSAT program, the GDC said.
The program, however, is limited to those who are close to being released and have a court order to attend.
The GDC statement also noted that each of its prisons has a supply of Narcan, the drug that can counteract fentanyl and other opioids.
In another measure, the GDC said, it focuses heavily on trying to block drugs from getting into its facilities and removing them if they do make it in.
One prison, four deaths
In recent months, no GDC facility has been more impacted by overdoses than Ware State Prison in Waycross, where four prisoners died from the toxic effects of meth.
The deaths of DonTavis Jeremiah Mintz, Robert Dillard Anderson II, John Anthony Ekers and Brian Matthew Dukes occurred in the 11 months between August 2021 and July 2022, with Ekers and Dukes dying six days apart.
Dukes’ mother, Mary Dukes, said she was told by the GDC that her son died from a meth overdose, but she was told little else.
“I mean, they said methamphetamine toxicity,” she said. “But how did he get (the drug )? How does it get from Prisoner A to Prisoner B without an employee or somebody doing something they shouldn’t be doing?”
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Mintz and Ekers were particularly gruesome. It was hours before prison officials noticed they were dead.
Mintz, 24, was discovered on the floor of his cell after an officer opened the flap in the door and “smelled a bad smell,” according to the GDC incident report. A large pool of congealed blood surrounded Mintz’s head, and his body was extremely stiff, according to a prison nurse’s notes.
Ekers, 54, was found slumped over a railing in a common area, a scene captured in a cellphone video and aired on Atlanta’s Fox 5. In the video, which went viral after it appeared in the telecast, an inmate can be heard saying Ekers had been in that position for more than two hours.
Ekers’ sister, Margaret Ekers, said she had lost touch with her brother, who had been in the prison system since receiving a life sentence for a 1991 murder. She said she was alerted of his death by a victim’s advocacy agency and otherwise had little information. When she searched his name online, she saw the video. She, too, has questions.
“No. 1, how did (the drugs) get in there?” she said. “And No. 2, how can anybody be left hanging like that for three hours?”
A new drug
When 30-year-old Marcus Sutton died in February at the Special Management Unit in Jackson, the autopsy revealed a dangerous drug that’s relatively rare on the street had found its way into what is supposed to be the state’s most secure facility.
Sutton, who was serving a 30-year sentence for manslaughter and other crimes, was found to have died from the toxic effects of pyro, a synthetic opioid said to be 1,000 times more powerful than morphine and 40 times more powerful that fentanyl. It began attracting the attention of law enforcement only last year, but largely in only two states, Colorado and Indiana.
In Georgia, just five other people have died as a result of using pyro, and none were in the prison system, an examination of currently available death certificates shows.
In Sutton’s case, correctional officers discovered him cold and unresponsive on his bed in his single-man cell just before 4:30 a.m., according to the Butts County coroner’s report. EMS personnel were summoned, but they determined that attempts to save his life would be futile, the report says.
The coroner, Lacey Prue, noted in the report that she saw a “white powdery residue” on a table in Sutton’s cell and a capsule in the toilet. According to the autopsy report, three bags of drug paraphernalia, including pills, also were recovered from his cell.
Sutton’s mother, Chantelle Gillespie, said she finds it hard to believe her son knowingly ingested such a dangerous drug. She said a prison nurse contacted her before her son’s death to say he was “acting out” because of drugs but didn’t say anything about opioids.
“Why would he hit it that much, that hard, with something he isn’t used to?” Gillespie said.
`She did have dreams’
In September 2020, Christina Buttery and her boyfriend, Tyler Livingston, pleaded guilty to trafficking meth in Gwinnett County. Livingston told an investigator that his supplier was linked to a cartel in the prison system, a prosecutor handling the case said at the sentencing.
For Buttery, then 32, the conviction and 10-year prison sentence opened a new chapter in a life that had included multiple arrests and convictions for possessing heroin and other drugs.
It also sent her to Pulaski State Prison, where she was assigned to a room in a dorm dominated by gang members. There, she was bullied, extorted, sexually harassed and ultimately beaten by a gang leader, her parents say.
Both Stephen Buttery, a Delta flight attendant who lives in Sandy Springs, and Christina’s mother, Deborah King, repeatedly complained to GDC administrators as well as U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, who in June 2022 publicly stated that he wanted the FBI to deal with gang violence at Pulaski.
In an email to the GDC ombudsman in December 2021, King cited the lack of supervision in the dorms as one reason for Christina’s torment.
“My daughter is still calling every day crying,” King wrote. “I called the counselor, but Christina said the counselors were acting as guards the day I called. Christina also stated that the guards come through but every 3 or 4 days.”
None of the requests for help led to action, a fact King now believes played a role in her daughter’s death.
“She should have been moved to another prison or at least out of the pod she was in,” King said. “They need to know their negligence cost a young girl her life. She did have dreams.”
Although there’s no evidence of foul play, supervisory failures may have played a role in Buttery’s death, causing her to die alone and without attention as prisoners, officers and administrators attended the annual Christmas program in the prison’s gym.
As in the past, the highly anticipated event basically shut down the Hawkinsville facility as Grammy-nominated gospel singer Travis Greene performed and prisoners received Bombas socks, candy, personal products and other items donated by faith-based organizations.
According to three Pulaski prisoners, Buttery wasn’t at the morning program with others from her dorm, yet the two officers whose job it was to conduct that morning’s “count” were in attendance. The fact that Buttery wasn’t there drew notice from her friends, because if she had remained in her room by choice, at least one of the officers would have had to stay with her, several current and former Pulaski inmates told the AJC.
At 12:30 that afternoon, shortly after the program ended and prisoners had returned to their rooms, Buttery’s body was discovered, according to the prison’s log for that day. The log makes no mention of any activity by officers before 12:30 p.m. EMS personnel arrived at 1:13 p.m., according to the log, but left after six minutes. There was nothing they could do.
How long had she lay dead in her room? If anyone had bothered to check, could her life have been saved? Who’s responsible for the drugs?
Stephen Buttery wonders about all those things and has yet to get answers. Continuing grief therapy nine months after his daughter’s death, he can’t understand how, even in prison, drugs killed her.
“I never would have imagined it in a million years,” he said. “You can’t lock somebody up forever. But (you hope) while she’s there, she’s safe. Well, come to find out, she wasn’t.”