Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lawsuit: Georgia prison officials condone violence on inmates

Department of Corrections officials turned a blind eye to — and sometimes encouraged — officers at Georgia’s medical prison to brutally beat inmates, a federal lawsuit alleges.

There were several occasions, according to the suit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, in which some officers at Augusta State Medical Prison “acted with evil motive” and “used force sadistically and for the sole purpose of causing pain or injury.”

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The suit details injuries suffered by three inmates: fractured eye sockets and jaws, bloody noses and mouths, unconsciousness, lacerations and severe bruising. The attacks took place when the inmates’ hands were cuffed behind their backs and in front of others, as well as in hidden settings such as inside elevators where there are no cameras, the suit alleges.

One of the inmates who brought the suit, Christopher Varner, was assigned to the medical prison because he has schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, organic brain damage and a severe form of diabetes. Eugene Griggs is in a wheelchair and also has schizophrenia and several physical ailments, including one that makes him exceptionally vulnerable to fractures. And Camerson Maddox, who also suffers from schizophrenia, was assigned to an assisted living unit.

The suit was brought against 12 current and former corrections employees. The inmates are asking that the state pay them unspecified damages.

“The use of force against (the inmates) was not random or unforeseeable,” the suit said. “It was part of a widespread, deeply entrenched and ongoing custom among Augusta State Medical Prison correctional officers.”

Attorneys in the case say the abuse took place for many years and that many inmates were targeted because they suffer mental illness and have difficulty reporting assaults or being taken seriously when they do.

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The Department of Corrections declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit.

Last April, two officers named in the civil suit — Antonio Binns and Justin Washington — and a third who was not, John Williams, pleaded guilty in federal court a year after they were charged. They were all sentenced to five years probation for one count of deprivation of rights.

Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the organization’s investigation discovered that inmates’ formal grievances were almost “always summarily rejected without investigation.”

For example, 1,977 out of a total of 1,986 use-of-force incidents reported at Georgia prisons last year and this year were “deemed unfounded without investigation.” Between Jan. 1, 2012, and July 31, 2017, an internal investigation determined there was excessive force used in only 18 of 6,807 cases.

“What that says to me is these complaints are not taken seriously,” Geraghty said.

Over the years, the department has been criticized for abusing inmates, for excessive inmate violence within institutions and for poor medical care. Yet inmates coming into the system are assured that their rights are protected and they can have their grievances investigated impartially.

“The central goal of the lawsuit is to stop the incidents of excessive force and require the Department of Corrections to take a better look at these cases,” Geraghty said, adding that they had found evidence that the abuse had been going on at the Augusta prison for at least a decade.

The suit blames not just the officers who allegedly delivered the abuse but prison officials who supposedly knew about it and condoned it. The warden at the time of the incidents outlined in the complaint, Scott Wilkes, and the assistant regional director over that prison, Stan Shepard, are still in those positions, according to corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath.

The suit — based on interviews, documents and court records — describes horrific scenes from inside the Augusta medical prison, some of them even after the three officers were charged with federal crimes.

In one instance described in the complaint, Varner was waiting to get his medication on Feb. 13, 2014, when several officers began shouting at the prisoners standing in a hallway and calling them names. Varner asked Williams why they were being treated that way and the officers responded by handcuffing, kicking, punching and stomping him. They allegedly took him to an elevator where they used pepper spray and continued to beat him with batons and their fists as the car when up and down and up and down. According to the suit, Varner suffered a broken eye socket, jaw and nose, and he was bruised all over his face and body.

Griggs, ordinarily in a wheelchair, was standing just inside a doorway waiting to see a counselor on July 27, 2015, when officer Verneal Evans became angry because he almost bumped into the inmate, the suit said. He allegedly slammed Griggs into a wall and then the ground with such force that his head bounced off the floor.

Last September, the suit said, two officers assaulted Maddox in an elevator and in a cell block because they thought he had attacked his much-older cellmate. He was kicked, kneed and rammed headfirst into a wall. Ordered to lie face down on a mattress in a pool of his blood, the suit said, Maddox was ordered to clean up the blood and the officers left the cell.


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