The investigator was soft-spoken but relentless.
“Look at me and tell me that you were not in that gymnasium,” said Trebor Randle, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, sitting across a small table from the corrections officer.
“And then what?” said Sgt. Christopher A. Hall, his voice a choked whisper. “What happens to me?”
A month earlier, in December 2010, Hall led an emergency response team at Macon State Prison in central Georgia responding to a fight between an inmate, Terrance Dean, and a guard. Hall’s team broke up the fight, handcuffed Dean and took him into the prison gym. Dean emerged with a massive head injury, comatose and clinging to life.
For weeks, Hall and the rest of his team maintained that Dean “snatched away” from the officers holding him, then fell and hit his head while running away. But in the videotaped interrogation of Hall by Randle, the guard admitted the simple truth: a handcuffed Dean was beaten by guards as punishment for assaulting their fellow officer.
“I don’t think my guys meant to do it,” Hall said. “It just happened. They just went too far.”
Nearly 16 months later, Dean’s beating remains at the center of an FBI investigation into organized brutality by guards at Macon State Prison in rural Oglethorpe, Ga. Last week, a second guard on Hall’s team, Darren Douglass-Griffin, 35, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights and conspiracy charges related to the beating of Dean and other inmates. He faces up to 25 years in prison. Earlier this year, another Macon guard pleaded guilty to similar federal charges.
The brutality probe at Macon comes amid a statewide outbreak of prison violence that has some Georgia institutions teetering on the brink of anarchy, according to a leading civil rights group in the state.
“Things seem to be spiraling out of control,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior staff attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based legal advocacy group. “We are seeing mass chaos, essentially, in many of the prisons.”
Homicides have spiked in Georgia prisons, which are overcrowded and understaffed, as have reports of violence and abuse, Geraghty said. The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the state, alleging systematic brutality by guards at another facility, Hays State Prison.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections declined to comment on the Dean case or on conditions at Macon, citing the FBI’s ongoing investigation, and did not respond to questions about the overall condition of Georgia prisons. Hall’s attorney did not respond to messages requesting comment. Attempts to reach him directly were unsuccessful.
Dean, who recovered from the coma but remains disabled, filed a federal lawsuit against Hall and the other guards he alleges were directly involved in the beating, as well as Hall’s supervisory officers, Capt. Kevin Davis and James Hinton, Macon’s deputy warden, who oversaw prison security.
Davis and Hinton were both aware that prisoners were being beaten in the gym, which is not equipped with cameras, according to Hall’s statements to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“I’m just trying to find out, in fairness to you, how far up this goes,” Randle, the state agent, said during her questioning of Hall. “What about the deputy warden?”
“Does he know? Yes,” Hall said, hanging his head.
Dean’s attorney, Mario Williams of Atlanta, said he hopes the FBI investigation aggressively pursues the possibility that senior officials at Macon knew about and condoned the abuse of inmates. “I think they should be going up the chain,” Williams said.
In a response to Dean’s lawsuit, the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, which represents Hinton and Davis, filed a lengthy motion denying any wrongdoing by the two men.
“Defendants deny that they were aware that excessive force was commonly used against inmates,” the motion stated.
Hall, a military veteran with a decade of corrections experience, said in his videotaped interrogation that conditions at Macon State Prison were ripe for official misconduct. Under questioning by Randle, he described a sharp deterioration of security at Macon that left guards rattled.
“Everybody’s just tired,” Hall said. “Just exhausted, man. Tired and mentally worn out.”
Hall had worked as a guard at Macon years before, he said, but found it altered radically for the worse when he returned in 2009.
“The inmates were wild,” he said. “It was a big change. Inmates assaulting the staff everywhere. People scared to come to work. The whole atmosphere was just chaos. All of it.”
The officers on Hall’s team were on edge Dec. 16, 2010, when the fight broke out between Dean and Stephen Walden, a guard, in a prison dorm. According to an internal Georgia Bureau of Investigation report, several inmate witnesses said Dean quarreled with Walden before the two men agreed to fight in the rear of the dorm.
The fight was quickly broken up by other guards. Walden suffered bruises, swelling and a sore jaw, the GBI report said.
Dean was not so lucky. His hands cuffed behind his back, guards took him to the gym, where he was kicked, stomped and punched into unconsciousness. The assault ended when the guards were physically pulled off of Dean, Hall said.
“I was screaming and pushing those guys,” Hall said. “Everything I was doing was to get those guys to stop.”
Dean, critically hurt, was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Macon, then Atlanta. His family was never officially notified of his injuries, his mother said in an interview.
Willie Maud Dean, 64, said she learned her son was injured after an inmate used an illegal cell phone to call Terrance Dean’s brother. The family then struggled for weeks to learn even basic facts about his condition, she said.
“They covered it up,” she said. “They didn’t want us to know what they did to him.”
Dean’s mother said she finally saw her son in early January.
“He couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t walk on his own. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t use his hands,” she said.
Dean, now 31, had been serving 20 years for an armed robbery of a Krystal’s hamburger franchise, his mother said. No one was hurt in the robbery, and Dean was caught after police pulled his image off of a surveillance video. He was six years into his sentence – his first prison stretch – when he was beaten.
Today, Dean is serving out his sentence at Georgia’s medical prison in Augusta. His left foot remains twisted inward and his speech slurred. He takes anti-seizure medication three times a day, and walks with the help of a leg brace. He struggles to write.
“He’s not the brother that went in there,” said his older sister, Stephanie Dean.
By; John Rudolf