State pays more than $1 million to teenage offender

Just two years after the state agreed to pay a former juvenile inmate millions of dollars for the injuries his lawyer says he suffered in an attack led by a known predator, taxpayers are spending $1.2 million more to settle a lawsuit that stems from an assault involving the same assailant.

In total, Georgia has spent close to $4.5 million to settle two lawsuits filed after physical and sexual attacks at the Youth Development Campus in Eastman, a long-term juvenile prison in Middle Georgia. The suits name Reginald Patton, now 22, as the ringleader in the attacks and describe him as a known predator. The victims in the case are identified the lawsuits by initials only because of their ages when they were attacked, 15 and 16.

Patton is now in the adult prison system, serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated assault on an Eastman YDC guard in 2011.

In the latest suit, the juvenile identified as D.M. didn’t claim permanent physical injuries. But, he said, the emotional and mental damage from physical and sexual assaults by Patton and his friends will be with him for the rest of his life.

“He was supposed to be protected. He was supposed to have been rehabilitated,” said his attorney, Woody Sampson. “He was not protected. He was damaged, damaged in a very significant way.”

Sampson’s client was targeted because he was smaller and younger, the lawsuit said, though he was not the only person subjected to the attacks. Once, the older boys, led by Patton, took his shoes. Another time, they wanted his food. He was also sexually assaulted.

To protect D.M., YDC officers put him in solitary confinement, sometimes for stretches of two and three weeks. Eventually, the isolation became so oppressive that he tried to kill himself — once by swallowing a pencil and again by tying a plastic bag around his head.

D.M. said he told guards he “had no interest in living.”

After D.M. recovered from the suicide attempts, officers at the YDC returned him to isolation, despite rules that say juvenile offenders should be secluded for no more than 72 hours and only for the most egregious offenses.

Also in 2013, a similar lawsuit was brought by another juvenile identified as R.N., who suffered permanent brain damage after he was allegedly attacked by Patton and his followers.

Both lawsuits argued that dangerous conditions existed because of the facility is under staffed.

Other agencies have also documented troubles at the YDC and in Georgia’s juvenile justice system.

In 2013, the Justice Department ranked the Eastman YDC and three others in Georgia — the now-closed short-term lockup in Paulding County and YDCs in Augusta and Americus — among the nation's 13 worst juvenile prisons, with more than 20.8 percent of the juveniles surveyed reporting sexual assaults by other inmates.

A Department of Audits and Accounts report last year found high turnover, which meant there weren't enough officers to keep the cell blocks safe. D.M.'s suit said one officer usually had to watch 32 volatile, impulsive teenagers even though a 1998 memorandum of understand that Georgia signed with the Justice Department said the inmate-officer ration should be half that, one guard overseeing 16 inmates.

The Department of Juvenile Justice’s written response to that state audit was to concede staffing was an issue and to promise improvements.

“The conditions were egregious,” said Sampson, who also represented R.N. “These facilities are supposed to be about rehabilitation, and they should not be a place where kids have been brutalized, both sexually and physically, on a daily basis.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice declined to comment on D.M.’s allegations for this article, saying the “settlement is still in active litigation,” even though Sampson filed paperwork to dismiss the suit on Friday because there was a settlement.

The federal judge who presided over D.M.’s case acknowledged in one order that there was “widespread resident-on-resident violence” at the Eastman YDC. He singled out Patton for physically and sexually abusing others at the Eastman YDC.

D.M. came to the juvenile system after receiving a four-year sentence for shooting and wounding a man who was attacking his mother, he and his lawyer said. He was 13 at the time. He was transferred to the Eastman YDC in March 2011 when he was 15.

Now an adult, D.M. is slight, rarely makes eye contact and is polite, ending each answer with sir or ma’am.

He said he will use the money he was awarded — to be paid out over his lifetime — to attend college. D.M. wants to be a homicide detective.

“I feel better about myself,” he said. “I felt like a new person when I was released from there. I felt like I could leave it in the past.”

His lawyer doubts that’s true.

“Clearly he’s not over it,” Sampson said. “You can tell by how he responds and how he acts.”

D.M. was reluctant to report his attacks when he was at the Eastman YDC. The suit says officers saw some of the attacks but did nothing. YDC staff were also confronted with the problem when D.M. had to have medical care for stitches and when he was choked unconscious.

“It felt embarrassed,” D.M. said about his reason for not reporting the sexual assault. “I felt like everybody was against me.”

According to the lawsuit, D.M. was physically or sexually attacked nine times in the three months he was in Eastman.

“They couldn’t stop it from happening,” Sampson said of the attacks.

While the Department of Juvenile Justice said in court filings officials didn’t know of the attacks on D.M. or the threat Patton was, D.M. received medical treatment and then was put in seclusion for his own safety.

In isolation, D.M. was let out of his cell to exercise for only one hour. “It’s being by yourself in a cage,” D.M. said. “I’d walk around. That’s about it.”

He could not attend classes in the YDC school. Instead guards would give him random reading material in the morning, unrelated to his education, and gather it up in the afternoon. He had no access to radio or television. Conversations with teens in nearby cells were had through cinder-block walls.

Sampson said much of the public isn’t aware of the violence and sexual assaults that happen in Georgia’s juvenile prisons.

“This is Georgia’s dirty little secret,” Sampson said.