Death row inmates planning hunger strike

Inmates on Georgia's death row are plotting a hunger strike to protest a series of get-tough measures following the recent deaths of two prisoners.

On Friday, guards at the state prison in Jackson found 35-year-old Leeland Mark Braley hanging in his cell. Prison officials say Braley, sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of a Zebulon insurance agent, apparently took his own life.

Timothy Pruitt's death more than three weeks earlier was ruled a "alleged suicide," though few seem to believe he took his own life. His death remains under investigation.

"We've heard from multiple families of death row inmates telling us that Pruitt's death was certainly not a suicide," said Sara Totonchi, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Pruitt, 43, was sentenced to death for the 1992 rape and murder of Wendy Vincent, a 10-year-old Lumpkin County girl.

His fiancee told the AJC she is convinced that Pruitt was killed by another death row inmate -- a theory widely shared, Totonchi said.

"He was excited for the holiday weekend," said Kari Ohland, who talked to Pruitt just hours before he was found on the floor of his cell with a bed sheet noose wrapped around his neck.  Pruitt was hospitalized more than two weeks before dying of injuries sustained in the hanging.

"I have a letter he was writing to me when they found him," said Ohland, who began corresponding with Pruitt five years ago. They were engaged in 2005. "He was analyzing a dream I had. There was nothing to indicate he was suicidal."

Totonchi said a fellow inmate is suspected of killing Pruitt, though prison officials wouldn't confirm that to the AJC.

"The Internal Affairs investigation pertaining to Tim Pruitt is still ongoing," a DOC spokeswoman said in a statement. "Therefore, the Department cannot comment on the specifics of the case."

The spokeswoman also said the new procedures eliminating contact visits and restricting prisoners to their cells all but one hour each day are unrelated to the recent deaths.

"The problem is not with the families and loved ones coming to visit," Totonchi said. "This all seems unnecessarily punitive."

Support is growing among prisoners for a hunger strike, Totonchi said.

"Inmates can and do decline meals from time to time for a multitude of reasons," the DOC spokeswoman said. "It would be speculation on our part if we linked any refusal to a specific incident."

There are now 105 men and one woman on Georgia’s death row.