At Smith State Prison, Christopher Heath was found dead with a belt around his neck after he was locked in a tiny, windowless shower stall in the prison’s segregation unit. His brother alleges he had been kept there for days.
At Hancock State Prison, Amanuel Geberyesus was known to be a suicide risk, but officers disregarded the recommendation of a counselor who said the inmate needed to be in a cell without items he could use to harm himself. He was discovered hanging by a bed sheet the next day.
In Campbell’s case, the disabled veteran was allowed to languish in a single-man cell in Rutledge’s segregation unit because the lone officer on duty didn’t check every 15 minutes as required. That officer was later fired for not making the appointed rounds and creating paperwork to make it look like he had.
“I think they failed him,” Campbell’s mother, Rita Underwood, said. “I think they failed him greatly. This wouldn’t have happened if they were doing their jobs.”
In an email, GDC spokesperson Joan Heath said that even though the inmate population has declined during the pandemic, the number of inmates with mental health diagnoses has increased 22%. To serve them, the agency has been expanding mental health services in its prisons and since 2019 has mandated mental health training for all employees, she said.
Since November 2020, Georgia has paid nearly $4.3 million to settle four lawsuits stemming from prison suicides, records obtained by the AJC show. The settlements suggest that the state has acknowledged, at least tacitly, its failures in preventing those deaths.
The largest settlement, $2.2 million, was paid last year to the parents of Jenna Mitchell, a transgender inmate who killed herself by hanging in solitary confinement at Valdosta State Prison in 2017.
While that settlement has attracted widespread media attention, Georgia has settled three other prison suicide lawsuits for $750,00, $700,000 and $600,000, the records reveal.
And the state’s liability and cost to taxpayers could grow. At least two other prison suicide lawsuits are pending. Three other claims have been made by attorneys who have notified the state of their intention to sue.
“I think they failed him. I think they failed him greatly. This wouldn't have happened if they were doing their jobs."
- Rita Underwood, mother of Andrew Campbell
Eric Fredrickson, an Atlanta attorney who filed two of the lawsuits that were settled last year, said the GDC’s biggest failing is suicide intervention. Correctional officers, already spread thin due to COVID 19 and other factors, are often simply unwilling to make the effort required to closely watch at-risk inmates, he said.
“It’s (a lack of) training and supervision and not holding people accountable,” Fredrickson said. “I think (officers) all know the requirements for observation rounds. They just continually get away with not doing it.”
The two cases he settled were resolved not long after they were filed and without significant discovery, indicating, he said, “clearly there was liability on the part of the state.”
Prison suicide numbers
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used death certificates, information from the Georgia Department of Corrections and other records to identify 125 Georgia inmate deaths since Jan. 1, 2017, as suicides.
The data show how suicides spiked since the end of 2018, when the prison system’s suicide rate already was among the nation’s highest.
In 2017, there were 19 suicides, and there were 17 in 2018, when the Department of Corrections said it was adding a psychologist to focus on suicide prevention. Yet in 2019, 25 inmates took their own lives, and 30 died by suicide in 2020. Last year, when the prison population shrunk due to COVID-19 pandemic measures, 25 died by suicide.
At least nine suicides were reported in the first three months of this year, putting the state on a pace that could exceed last year’s figure.
The last time Georgia’s prison suicide rate could be accurately compared to the rest of the country’s was 2019, when the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics issued its most recent report. That year, the national average was 27 per 100,000 inmates. Using the same formula, the rate in Georgia in 2019 was 44.
The use of solitary confinement was cited as a suicide factor in a lawsuit filed by attorneys from the Southern Center on Human Rights last September on behalf of inmates at Georgia State Prison, the GDC’s oldest facility.
The suit, which sought class action status, noted that three inmates who committed suicide at the prison between September 2019 and May 2021 were in its solitary confinement unit, where harsh conditions, including rat and roach-infested cells, existed.
The plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss the suit in March, shortly after the GDC announced it was planning to close the prison.
Discovered in a shower
Christopher Heath’s death in December 2020 raised immediate questions for his family, many of which have yet to be answered. It also has attracted the attention of the Department of Justice as part of its ongoing investigation.
Heath’s older brother, Jerrod, has hired Atlanta attorney Robin Frazier Clark, who on Thursday sued the GDC and other parties. The lawsuit asserts that Heath, 43, died after being held in the shower stall, located on the upper tier of the prison’s segregation unit, for days without regular meals, access to a toilet or a mattress.
Heath, who was sentenced to life without parole in 2014 after a second armed robbery conviction, was subjected to that intense isolation even though he had made several attempts at suicide, including one three months earlier, according to the lawsuit.
Jerrod Heath told the AJC he hired Clark after learning from other inmates that his brother had been moved to the shower stall after a dispute with his cellmate and had been kept there at least 72 hours.
“I mean, you don’t treat a dog like that,” he said. “To be honest, my brother would have been better off at Guantanamo Bay.”
Heath said he spoke to the DOJ about his brother’s death earlier this year.
“Somebody needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I’m expecting the Department of Justice will be taking up that aspect of it.”
Tormented by gangs
A lawsuit filed by Geberyesus’ father, Yemane Selassie, detailed how the indifference of prison personnel caused his son, 25, to commit suicide in March 2019 after he was targeted by gangs.
Geberyesus, who was serving a one-year sentence after violating his probation on a burglary conviction, should have been housed with other medium security inmates, the suit asserted. Instead, he was with inmates who had “assaultive histories.”
After several violent attacks, Geberyesus, who stood 5′11″ and weighed only 110 pounds, was placed in solitary confinement, a move that accelerated his demise, the lawsuit stated.
Geberyesus was examined by a counselor after an apparent suicide attempt.
“Offender reported that other offenders are out to get him and expressed that he’s having thoughts of hurting himself and others,” the counselor wrote.
The counselor recommended that Geberyesus be placed in a so-called “strip cell” so he wouldn’t have access to bedding or anything else that might allow him to kill himself. However, officers returned him to a regular cell, where he was found hanging.
The lawsuit was settled for $600,000 last November, 10 months after it was filed.
A troubled vet
Campbell joined the Marines in 2009 shortly after graduating from high school in Bremen. In Afghanistan, he served with a combat logistics group, operating heavy equipment to clear roads, a job that often put him in danger of IEDs.
After his return, he was declared a disabled vet, found to be suffering from PTSD, major depressive disorder and seizure disorder. He also came back with a serious drug problem, mainly an addiction to opioids, his mother said.
“He was a good, kind, loving young man who suffered from PTSD and depression, and that led to a drug addiction, just like other veterans,” Underwood said. “He battled it and got into trouble, and that’s why he was (in prison).”
Campbell was sentenced to a three-year prison term in December 2018 after he pleaded guilty to injury by vehicle and possession of a controlled substance. The case stemmed from a traffic accident three years earlier in Carroll County. Campbell was driving a Ford F-150 when he struck another vehicle, causing the driver to suffer multiple injuries.
Like most GDC incident reports, the report on Campbell’s death contains few details for the events leading up to it. However, under “warden’s comments,” it states that dormitory cameras showed “rounds had been made outside required time and wrong staff.” The officer in charge, Antonia Jamerson, and a trainee who was shadowing him , Warren Baltes, would be subject to adverse action, the report says.
Jamerson’s GDC personnel file shows he was placed on leave four days after Campbell’s death and never returned. He ultimately was fired for “failure to perform assigned duties, falsification of documents and untimely reporting/documentation.”
Jamerson, contacted recently by the AJC, said he saw no suicidal tendencies with Campbell and in fact had laughed and joked with him. He declined to discuss the matter in detail except to say short-staffing in Georgia prisons makes checking on at-risk inmates every 15 minutes virtually impossible.
“I know at that time the suicide protocol was 15 minutes, but you can’t do that with one officer,” he said. “So once I come around, it’s going to be 30 minutes before I come back.”
He said he still feels the pain of Campbell’s death and has undergone counseling because of it. “Right now, I can’t even drive by that place,” he said.
Baltes was not disciplined and remained with the department as an officer for another year before resigning. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Underwood, who hasn’t filed a lawsuit, said she still has no good understanding for why her son, halfway through his sentence, took his own life or even why he was in segregation. She said she last spoke to him on the day before his death, and at the time he was still in the general prison population .
During that phone call, Underwood said she told Campbell that his grandmother had died the day before. She said she had debated whether to give him the news but decided he needed to hear it sooner rather than later.
The toxicology report accompanying Campbell’s autopsy found methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system. Underwood wonders about that, too. Was he behaving erratically? And if so, wouldn’t someone notice?
Whatever the case, she said she felt compelled to speak out, if only to expose how the prison system operates and spare others her pain.
“It’s about not letting this happen again and again and again,” she said.
Investigative journalist Danny Robbins can be contacted at AJCinvestigations@ajc.com