published Friday, December 27th, 2013

When will Hays State Prison get it right?

  • photo
    The newest death makes it clear that Hays State Prison is still having problems.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When will Hays State Prison get it right?

Prison shouldn't be easy, but it shouldn't be deadly, either. Yet deadly seems to be the case if an inmate is at Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga., 40 miles south of Chattanooga.

Last winter, four Hays inmates died in custody between Dec. 19 and Feb. 5, and two guards were stabbed even while the prison was on full lockdown. The deaths put a spotlight on a number of problems: Locks had been neglected for years and some doors could be opened with just a finger, gang leaders controlled where prisoners slept. Meanwhile, inmates roamed the halls and used smuggled cellphones to threaten families on the outside: Send money or your loved one dies.

After a warden change and a Corrections Department move to spend more than $2 million to replace failed locks, no new incidents made headlines until a fifth inmate died on Dec. 11.

Phillips Pearson, 42, was found dead inside a one-man cell, investigators confirmed. Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Greg Ramey said there didn't appear to be signs of foul play and the evidence points to a possible suicide.

But Pearson's father, Charlie Pearson, said the last time he talked to his son he feared for his life. He remembers what his son said across the prison phone: "Daddy, I don't think I'm going to make it out."

When Charlie Pearson saw his son's body laid out at the funeral home on Dec. 20, he noticed bruises on his son's face, and he was thinner than normal.

Chattanooga Times reporter Joy Lukachick, who uncovered the Hays atrocities last year and began chronicling them, has now learned that several officers have expressed their suspicions about the manner of Pearson's death. First they were told he died of an overdose, then that he hanged himself. One officer, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said the timing was suspicious because the prison's emergency response team was spotted inside the cell before Pearson was found.

"If he was suicidal, he should have been in a strip cell and [on] regular observation," the officer said.

Corrections officials won't talk about the death, citing an open investigation. Neither would Coroner Earle Rainwater confirm if he saw bruises on Pearson's body as his father said he saw. Rainwater wouldn't say what he believes Pearson died from, also citing an open investigation.

"It's heartbreaking to hear of another death there," said Melanie Velez, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, a prison advocacy group that last January called for an impartial prison expert to evaluate the violence at Hays and explore solutions.

The group -- and the public -- are still waiting. In the meantime inmates are suffering apparently at the hands of other inmates and inadequate prison safeguards.

Charlie Pearson said his son, who had been in prison 17 years on a murder conviction, also complained over the summer that he wasn't getting enough food. He told his father he had been beaten by officers, but when the elder Pearson called the prison to get more information, no one ever called him back, he said.

"The prison won't give us no information," Pearson said.

Nor, apparently are prison officials giving the public and taxpayers any information. The Department of Corrections denied a Times Free Press request to speak with the new warden, Scott Crickmar, and a corrections spokeswoman said questions about conditions at the prison had to be submitted in an open records request. Taxpayers paid to build the prison, and now we're paying to fix it. Unfortunately, we likely will pay for human suffering, as well.

Already, the Department of Corrections faces a civil rights lawsuit filed by the mother of one of the dead prisoners, 28-year-old Damion MacClain, who was strangled and beaten in his bed on Christmas night 2012 after the door to his cell should have been locked.

The newest death makes it clear that Hays is still out of control.

"Whatever it is, they need to put a stop to [the violence.] They [these inmates] are somebody's kids. To me that prison needs to be closed down," Chalie Pearson said.

He may be right. Hays and Georgia Corrections officials can't seem to answer basic questions, much less get violence under control.

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