published Sunday, January 13th, 2013

From Hays State Prison, terror calls

A view out the front door of Hays State Prison, in Trion Ga., reveals one of the many watchtowers on the property.
A view out the front door of Hays State Prison, in Trion Ga., reveals one of the many watchtowers on the property.
Photo by Tim Barber.
  • photo
    Derick Stubbs sent this photo he took of himself to his girlfriend before he was killed at Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Should prisons do more to control cell phones?

There are weapons in Hays State Prison that look like weapons: Lines of barbed wire. Sharpened pieces of metal, plastic or glass. Screwdrivers.

Then there are weapons that look innocent: A piece of paper. A cellphone.

People who are in and out of the maximum security prison in Trion, Ga., say inmates will use just about anything to get an advantage over their circumstances.

Mostly, what happens behind prison walls -- intimidation, threats, gang activity and worse -- has stayed behind those walls.

Not anymore. Two recent killings at Hays State demonstrate how inmates bent on mayhem can even reach beyond the walls of the prison, victimizing people on the outside.

During the holidays, Derrick Stubbs was beaten so severely that he died from his injuries a few days later. The other victim, Damion MacClain, was strangled in his bed late at night after the doors should have been locked and unbreachable.

Families of both victims, who were in their 20s, said they had been receiving threatening calls and demands for cash before the men were killed. They said other inmates were using cellphones to terrify them, using the threat of violence against their loved ones as leverage.

Gloria Rodriguez, a Kentucky resident and Stubbs' girlfriend, said she was sent pictures of Stubbs being strangled with a T-shirt, a shank held to his head.

"Send $300," she was told.

State Corrections officials said the extortion claims are under investigation, but wouldn't talk about them.

Prison officials referred questions to the state department.

Yet one former inmate said extortion and violence are commonplace at Hays and could easily spill out and affect the families of those locked away.

"If you put attack dogs in the same pen what happens?" said Charmaine Goins, a former Hays inmate who now helps run a Chattanooga nonprofit.

Advocacy groups and the victims' families are calling for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the December deaths. How could MacClain be killed after midnight when the cells were supposed to be locked down? How could Stubbs have died while in protective custody?

•••

According to statistics compiled by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, nine inmates were killed in Georgia prisons last year. That's up from 2011, when there were seven. In 2009, only four violent deaths were reported in prisons statewide.

Inmates aren't the only ones subject to attack in the state's prisons.

An 11-year veteran guard was killed at Telfair State Prison last fall. In February 2012, two Hays guards were hospitalized after being attacked by multiple inmates.

Hays was named the 2012 facility of the year by the state Department of Corrections, but some say getting sent there can be a death sentence.

"Those inmates are out of control. There is no control at the prison," said Andrew Mitchell, a former Hays guard. "It's just luck. Every time I walk out of there, it's luck."

Still, guards are sometimes part of the problem.

There are only three ways that banned cellphones could get into Hays, according to Goins. A prisoner could get one while outside on a work detail, or someone could slip it to him during visitation. But the easiest way to get a cellphone is through a guard, said Goins.

He said when he was serving time between 1999 and 2001, inmates were able to buy them from guards, paying up to $300.

Inmates used them to call home, keep up with their children. Others used them to continue running illegal business or for gang activity, Goins said.

When a threatening phone call comes from prison, it's hard for the family to know what's behind it. Sometimes cash-poor inmates will plot to get money out of their own families. Sometimes the threat is real.

The authorities "are apparently unable to keep people reasonably safe from harm," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

"Both prisoners and officers are at risk here, and in a sense now family members are being drawn into this, as well."

•••

Months before RaHonda MacClain got the news that her only child had been strangled to death, she called the prison and tried to get him moved for his protection.

Damion MacClain, a 27-year-old armed robber, had begun begging his uncles and mom to send him money on Green Dot prepaid cards instead of into his prison account, where they normally sent money to buy food and supplies at the prison store. RaHonda also received calls from another inmate demanding she send money to his prepaid card, but she couldn't get it to work.

"Momma, I'm not coming out alive," she remembers her son telling her at one point.

She thought he was about to be moved at any time. Then he was found dead.

"The prison system failed to protect my child," she said. "That prison should be shut down."

Rodriguez tells a similar story. After scraping together and sending more than half the cash that was demanded, she learned that Stubbs, a 25-year-old armed robber, had been found dead.

"I feel like it's my fault," she said. "I should have called [to report it.]"

Inmates also threatened Stubbs' father, demanding $300, said Stubbs' mother, Shawn Singleton. He, too, sent money. While she can't get any answers about the attack, Singleton said the coroner told her that her son died from blunt force trauma to the chest.

GBI still hasn't arrested anyone or even called Stubbs' death a homicide. Agents also have said little publicly about MacClain's death, except that there was a fight in his cell after midnight.

Before MacClain was killed, he called his uncle, Clint Turner, in a panic. He told Turner he needed money, but wouldn't say what it was for. He kept saying he was being pressured to join a gang, but refused.

"He wouldn't tell us what was going on, but he was worried about money," Turner said.

The coroner told the family that MacClain died of strangulation. But the family took photos at the funeral home showing his swollen face. Nicks marred his head, his nose was cut, his eyelid sagged, black and purple from bruising.

Inmate Daniel Ferguson, a murderer already sentenced to life, has been arrested in connection with MacClain's death.

"It just don't add up," said another MacClain uncle, Lysander Turner.

But Mitchell, the former Hays guard, said more than a hundred cell doors didn't lock properly when he was at the prison, and inmates came and went as they pleased.

Mitchell, who left Hays in April, worked the night shift. Inmates were supposed to stay in their cells starting at 9 p.m. on weekdays and 11:30 on weekends, but he said it was a chore trying to keep them there, especially when there were only two guards on each floor. One guard stayed in the tower while the other guard watched the floor.

"Every time we walk on the floor, we walk by ourselves," he said.

State corrections officials won't talk about security and whether any of the doors at Hays are broken. They said only that they review the safety and security of the prison daily.

•••

Hays isn't the only Georgia prison with such problems.

Last week the Southern Center for Human Rights received a complaint from an inmate at another prison, who claims he was assaulted and his photo was taken and sent to his family in an extortion attempt, said Geraghty.

Correction officials said they've received 25 to 30 allegations of extortion,and have opened six investigations since 2006. But investigators haven't found evidence that would support criminal charges, said department spokeswoman Dabney Weems.

Geraghty, who has been monitoring Georgia prisons, said cellphones have been widely available for some time inside the prisons, and the problem is only getting worse. That's why the advocacy group believes help is needed from the National Institute of Corrections, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice that provides training to state corrections.

"It's time to ask for help," she said.

RaHonda MacClain, too, is writing the U.S. Department of Justice hoping for a federal investigation.

"I'm going to take it as far as I can take it," she said.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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