Women sexually assaulted, beaten at Georgia prison

Attacks tied to female gang members transferred to facility, with outnumbered guards failing to intervene

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

For months, inmates at Georgia’s second-largest prison for women have been subjected to brutal acts of violence, including at least three alleged sexual assaults, as a gang of inmates has bullied and intimidated the prison’s understaffed security detail, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.

Two inmates said that they were sodomized at knife point by gang members seeking money for “protection.” Another claims she was beaten as fluid from a gang member’s genitalia was smeared on her face and in her mouth. Yet another had a portion of her ear bitten off as four gang members staged what authorities have characterized as a gang initiation.

The incidents at Pulaski State Prison are some of the most dramatic examples to date of the violence that has reached into all areas of the state prison system. Women make up only about 7% of the state’s prison population, but they are clearly among those suffering from the crisis.

“I’m marked for life,” said Norma Juarez-Morales, who alleges she was raped at Pulaski in January and has since been released from custody. “I have nightmares. I don’t even want to go out in daylight. I just don’t want anybody else to go through this. It was me this time, but there’s no telling who it’s going to be next.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request from the AJC to speak with Pulaski Warden Meosha McMillan, nor did it respond directly to an outline of issues at the prison.

Instead, spokesperson Joan Heath wrote in an email that the department “takes all allegations, such as you have outlined, very seriously” and thoroughly investigates them. Allegations of sexual assault “specifically are investigated thoroughly,” as dictated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, she wrote.

The violence at Pulaski is among the issues under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice in its investigation of the GDC, according to those familiar with the probe. The DOJ announced in September that it had formally opened the investigation and that the rise in inmate-on-inmate violence in Georgia was its focus. At least 57 inmates have been victims of homicides in the past two years, according to records the AJC obtained, compared with 21 in 2018-2019.

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Inmates interviewed for this story said women who consider themselves members of the Bloods, the largest gang in the Georgia prison system, are responsible for the violence at Pulaski. They said the gang has been a force at the Hawkinsville facility since the end of last year, when several of its members were moved there from Lee Arrendale State Prison. That added stress to a facility already short on staff.

Pulaski has been hit particularly hard by the staffing crisis throughout the prison system caused by COVID-19 and other factors. The prison, which can house as many as 1,200 inmates, advertises more openings for correctional officers —14 — than any other Georgia facility.

The result, inmates said, is officers and others in charge have ignored some issues and tried to downplay others, including one instance in which officials declined to investigate a possible sexual assault as a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, commonly known as PREA.

Juarez-Morales became emotional as she described how she and her cellmate, Carla Cardenas-Becerra, were beaten and sodomized with plastic toothbrush cases by gang members minutes apart in their cell because Juarez-Morales had refused to pay “protection.” At least an hour before the attack, she said, guards were made aware of the danger, but they took no action because it was late at night and they believed they would be outnumbered.

“This gang runs the prison, and the officers know it,” she said. “They’re scared. What little staff there is runs scared, because there’s too many (gang members) to control.”

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

The AJC generally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault unless they give their permission. Juarez-Morales and Cardenas-Becerra consented to be identified by name. Both said they wanted what happened to them to be revealed so others will know the dangerous conditions at the prison.

Nicole Wiesen, a former GDC inmate who now works as an advocate for incarcerated women, said gang violence has always been part of life at Pulaski and Lee Arrendale, the largest of Georgia’s four prisons for women. But the problem has become more acute as spotty staffing has allowed the gangs to gain members and leverage, she said.

“They’re out of control, and they’re out of control because there’s no control,” she said.

Looking the other way

On Jan. 2, a 31-year-old inmate from Decatur with a long criminal history, Charquita Cooper, attacked another inmate, causing that inmate “substantial physical harm or visible bodily harm,” according to the warrant issued for Cooper’s arrest on a charge of battery.

Interviewed by the AJC, the victim, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions, said Cooper not only beat her, but Cooper also threw a cup of urine on her, then extracted fluid from her own vagina and anus and smeared it on the woman’s face and in her mouth.

A second inmate, identified in an arrest warrant as 26-year-old Jamie Tia Edwards, has also been charged with battery for her role in the attack. The victim said Edwards entered her cell with Cooper and beat her with a lock.

Cooper instigated the attack after being told that the victim’s cellmate wasn’t available to give her a haircut, the victim said.

“This gang runs the prison, and the officers know it. They're scared. What little staff there is runs scared, because there's too many (gang members) to control."

- Norma Juarez-Morales, who alleges she was raped at Pulaski State Prison

The victim said she reported the matter to prison officials as a PREA violation and was shocked and angered when she was informed that what happened wasn’t in their view sexual assault.

The law defines sexual abuse in a variety of ways, one of which is “coerced sexual activity” in response to “pressuring.” By not considering the matter in that light, prison officials avoided an extensive series of federally mandated investigative and reporting requirements.

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“I just feel like this prison needs to be investigated by the higher ups, starting with our warden,” the victim said. “I feel like they’re trying to cover up a lot of stuff, and it’s not right.”

Nine days later, Cooper allegedly attacked another inmate in a grisly manner. That inmate, Regina McClary, claims Cooper entered her cell around dawn for no clear reason and started a fight that ended with McClary losing the top portion of her left ear.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Cooper is charged in that case with aggravated battery and participating in criminal gang activity. Three other inmates have been similarly charged. According to the arrest warrants, the four women carried out the alleged attack so they could obtain membership in the Bloods or increase their status within the gang.

McClary’s mother, Regina Gardner, said her daughter told her that Cooper was the one who bit her ear. Gardner said she was stunned when her daughter, who also had bite marks on her arm and the back of her neck, described the attack.

“I’m like, `Where are the guards when all this is happening?’” she said.

Following the incident, Cooper was transferred to Lee Arrendale.

Gardner has since started a petition on the change.org website. Under a photo of her daughter’s partially missing ear, it urges people to sign up to “stop the inhumane things done to my daughter and other inmates” at Pulaski State Prison.

`It just happened so fast’

Juarez-Morales was nearing the end of a four-month sentence in the GDC for violating her probation for methamphetamine possession in Whitfield County when she was in her dormitory’s day room — a common area with tables, phones and televisions — on the night of Jan. 20 . The 40-year-old said she caught the first sign of danger out of the corner of her eye.

“I just remember the leader getting on top of the table and saying, `It’s time to smoke the Mexicans,’” she said. “And then I saw everybody coming out of different corners, different rooms. It just happened so fast.”

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Gang members beat her repeatedly, forcing her to give up her jewelry and other personal possessions, she said. Then, she said, they wanted more, demanding that she call someone to send them money via Cash App.

Using one of the day room phones, Juarez-Morales said, she called her 23-year-old son, Christian, and told him to send help. She spoke to him in Spanish, she said, hoping it would hide her intentions, but the plan backfired when one of the gang members understood her.

Juarez-Morales said her attackers, angered by the call for help, then led her out of the day room and back to her cell, where one held a blade to her neck while others sodomized her

“I just remember them saying, as they were sticking that on me, `That’s what you deserve, bitch. This is what you like, right?’” she said.

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Cardenas-Becerra said she entered the cell and saw Juarez-Morales, who suffers from asthma, struggling to breathe. Cardenas-Becerra said she began looking for Juarez-Morales’ inhaler, and that’s when gang members turned on her, sodomizing her in the same way, she said. Finally, around 2 a.m., she said she was able to call out to guards who had entered the dorm to escort inmates working in the kitchen to their jobs.

Shortly after 4 a.m., a guard summoned an ambulance to take Juarez-Morales to Taylor Regional Hospital, where she said she was given oxygen.

A stunning admission

While she was in the hospital, Juarez-Morales said, she learned from an officer that he and two others had been alerted to the possibility that she was being attacked. She said the officers “gave (gang members) enough time to do what they did. This could have been prevented.”

Christian Morales told the AJC that he in fact made three calls to the prison on his mother’s behalf between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. During the last of the calls, he said, he reached a woman who identified herself as a correctional officer. He said the officer told him nothing could be done for his mother until the morning.

“Her exact words to me were, `Anything involving gangs, we can’t do a thing about it,’” he said.

Juarez-Morales said she still doesn’t know the real names of her attackers, just their nicknames, but she was able to identify them to investigators through their photos. The AJC was able to confirm that prison officials are investigating the matter as a PREA violation.

After the attack, Juarez-Morales was moved to a safer wing of the prison. But on the night before her release, she had to go to lockdown, a standard precaution in the GDC for departing inmates She said she could hear her assailants talking from their cells. The voices brought back a painful memory, and it isn’t going away, she said.

“I can’t forget,” she said. “I wake up at night still hearing those voices.”

To contact the investigations team, email us at AJCinvestigations@ajc.com