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Examining Georgia's prison conditions through the death of one man

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Georgia's Department of Corrections. They're looking at allegations of chronic understaffing in state prisons, meaning neither the incarcerated nor corrections officers are safe from violence, including self-inflicted harm. Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting takes a look at prison conditions through the death of one man. And a warning - this story may be disturbing to some listeners.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: Nerissa Wright says by the time her son, DonTavis Mintz, came home from Ware State Prison, she only knew him by a single tooth.

NERISSA WRIGHT: Because he had some dental work done when he was small - he had broken his teeth. And that's how I knew him, by his tooth.

BLANKENSHIP: Otherwise, her son's body was unrecognizable. The research says the boy with the broken tooth was a lot like any other kid. He loved sports. He loved his brothers and sisters. Nerissa says things changed when DonTavis began running with an older crowd. When he was 16, he and a 20-year-old friend broke into a Macon home, robbed the owner and took him hostage. Days later, DonTavis killed another teen, Alyssa Jackson. And so by 18, DonTavis Mintz was serving two simultaneous life sentences, one for the robbery and another for the murder. Nerissa says for a while, she talked to her son almost daily through the official channels provided by the Department of Corrections.

WRIGHT: Can write on the tablet, back and forth communicating - or he was calling.

BLANKENSHIP: But unbeknownst to her, DonTavis was using other means to talk to a prison reform activist about issues like understaffing at Ware State Prison.

BRIAN RANDOLPH: DonTavis originally contacted us about a year and a half ago, maybe almost two years ago, I'm sure with a contraband cellphone.

BLANKENSHIP: Brian Randolph runs the Facebook page Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia. It's filled with videos of violence in prisons, all taken on contraband cellphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ooh, ooh, ooh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's on now. (Unintelligible).

BLANKENSHIP: DonTavis was adding to that body of evidence. And then Brian Randolph says the flow of information stopped. He believes that's because guards found DonTavis' phone, sending him into what the Department of Corrections calls the tier system.

ATTEEYAH HOLLIE: The tier system is supposed to address wrongdoing and behavioral challenges within the Department of Corrections.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Atteeyah Hollie, attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

HOLLIE: But it really is just an extreme form of isolation and solitary confinement.

BLANKENSHIP: A term in Tier 2 solitary confinement lasts a minimum of nine months. Hollie says it typically goes on for years. That's for offenses ranging from acts of violence to having contraband cellphones. Even under proper supervision, solitary confinement increases a person's risk of suicide. Hollie says the problem is that Georgia prisons lack proper supervision.

HOLLIE: Prisons like Georgia State Prison, for example, has a staff vacancy rate of 70%. Seven out of 10 officers are not coming to work there.

BLANKENSHIP: According to state data, the number of corrections officers working across the entire Department of Corrections has dropped by over 35% in the last decade. Meanwhile, the state prison population has barely changed.

HOLLIE: The officers that are - should be there to check on their status, to check on their well-being are not there.

BLANKENSHIP: The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the relationship between that and the spike in suicide in Georgia prisons. When asked, the DOJ offered little detail about their investigation beyond soliciting stories from people like Nerissa Wright. The last rumor Nerissa Wright heard about her son was that guards had looked in on him and he was OK. Then two weeks later, DonTavis was dead.

WRIGHT: I was also told how they found my son was when his body started smelling.

BLANKENSHIP: The funeral home worker that brought DonTavis home to Macon confirmed his body was badly decomposed, which leaves his mother with questions.

WRIGHT: How did he eat? How did they, you know, feed him? Who did counts? Who can run a check on them?

BLANKENSHIP: In documents secured through an open records request, the Georgia Department of Corrections lists DonTavis Mintz's cause of death as undetermined, which they say means they might still be investigating. But Georgia Corrections calls the reports at the end of death investigations, quote, "state secrets." They will not release the information, which means Nerissa Wright may never get answers to her questions.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.