published Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Lawsuit filed in killing of Hays State Prison inmate

Hays State Prison is in Trion, Ga.
Hays State Prison is in Trion, Ga.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Hays State Prison lawsuit
Hays State Prison lawsuit

The mother of one of four prisoners killed at Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga., wants corrections officials held accountable for ignoring a "crisis in security" that her attorneys say led to her son's death.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, on behalf of RoHonda MacClain, filed a civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against eight Department of Corrections officials, from state corrections Commissioner Brian Owens to former Hays Warden Clay Tatum and the two guards on shift when 27-year-old Damion MacClain was slain in December 2012.

"Ms. MacClain seeks to hold accountable those state officials who so little valued her son's life that they ignored obvious signs that he and others at Hays were in danger," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Atlanta-based advocacy group.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. Northern District Court of Georgia alleges that the commissioner, warden and other supervisors knew about escalating violence at Hays but chose to ignore it. The complaint also alleges that two supervisors -- Deputy Warden Shay Hatcher and Capt. Timothy Clark -- contributed to the increase in violence by warning inmates of upcoming shakedowns for contraband weapons, among other things.

MacClain was the second prisoner killed in a week at Hays State Prison last December. He was found stabbed, strangled and beaten at the hands of other inmates. Two more men would die in an eight-week span before the Department of Corrections ousted the warden and funneled millions of dollars to fix broken cell doors and harden cells where prisoners were pulling the metal from window frames and vents to make deadly weapons.

RoHonda MacClain's attorneys cite state audits that show officials were aware for five years that cell doors and locks were broken and could be manipulated with fingers or scraps of toilet paper.

"Despite this well-documented security hazard, the Defendants neither fixed the problem with functioning locks, nor took alternative steps to control dangerous inmate movements," the federal lawsuit filed in Rome, Ga., states. "The broken cell door locks greatly contributed to a crisis in security at Hays, putting prisoners and officers in danger."

Late Wednesday, corrections officials could not be reached for comment for this story.

But in February when corrections officials had to justify spending $1.7 million to fix Hays' broken locks, officials acknowledged the work was necessary to stop a plague of assaults and violence at the maximum-security prison.

"Installing this lock throughout Hays will eliminate the current assaults on inmates and staff that is plaguing Hays State Prison," officials wrote in a purchase order. "It is in the best interest of the state to proceed with installation ... before someone is seriously injured or there is a loss of life."

This was written three days after 19-year-old Pippa Hall-Jackson was stabbed to death after stepping off a transfer bus from Hays -- the fourth prisoner to die.

The newly filed lawsuit, which doesn't ask for an exact amount in damages, also cites dozens of incident reports leading up to MacClain's death to show how security conditions had deteriorated:

• On Aug. 19, 2012, an officer observed two inmates running "with what looked to be shanks" and saw a third inmate "stumble downstairs with blood on his back."

• On Sept. 1, 2012, an officer witnessed an inmate "approach [another inmate] from behind and stab him in the back multiple times with a sharp pieces [sic] of metal."

• On Oct. 7, 2012, a bleeding man "collapsed on the sidewalk" after being stabbed in the chest, shoulder and head.

Months before Damion MacClain was killed, his mother had tried to get him moved from the prison because he had been threatened by other inmates. She told the Times Free Press that she thought he had been moved when she got the call that he was dead.

It was on Christmas night that guards responded to a fight around 1 a.m. in dorm A and found MacClain, who was serving time on two armed robbery convictions, face down on a bed and unresponsive, an incident report shows.

The fight broke out after prisoners should have been locked in their cells.

When several guards turned MacClain over on his side, his face was swollen and blood was pouring from his nose, an incident report shows. Two guards said they felt a small pulse and heard shallow breathing, but by the time medics arrived, MacClain was dead.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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