DJJ: Investigation clears guards of inciting fights at youth jail
By JIM WALLS / For the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
March 14 — State officials say they have cleared three guards of accusations that they incited violence among girls held at a Rome juvenile detention facility. One of the guards was fired, though, for failing to prevent the Dec. 7 attack at the heart of the allegations, and the other two disciplined for unrelated policy violations.
Witness statements in the Department of Juvenile Justice’s case file told investigators that guards had offered them food as bribes to fight other juveniles. A male detainee made similar uncorroborated allegations, the file shows, and the girl accused in the Dec. 7 attack told an investigator that one of the guards told her she wouldn’t get in trouble for it.
DJJ “weighed the totality of witness statements and information” in a report that found insufficient evidence to conclude that officers were promising food or other favors to juveniles who assaulted other juveniles, the department said in a statement Tuesday.
The department’s announcement late Monday of those findings characterized such allegations as false. “Statements from some staff and residents alike at the Rome RYDC portrayed the accusations as based on ‘rumors going around’ … girls ‘talking trash’ … and youth in detention ‘telling lies on officers,’ ” the department’s news release said.
The investigation focused on charges by Whitney Bonds, then 16, who was beaten and her nose broken Dec. 7 by another girl being held at the Bob Richards juvenile detention center in Rome. Guards put her attacker up to it, Whitney alleged, because she had told her mother that the guards had offered her food from McDonald’s if she agreed to assault another youth a day earlier.
“This was a disturbing allegation,” Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner said Monday in the department’s statement. “We would not tolerate that kind of Officer Misconduct at any of our secure facilities.”
DJJ said guards Deborah Adams, Geynah Carmichael and India Jones passed polygraph exams when they denied promoting fights at the detention center. No polygraph exam was given to Whitney, who volunteered for one, or other juvenile witnesses.
Jones, though, was dismissed for not preventing the attack on Whitney even though she’d heard the assailant talking about it minutes earlier. Several witnesses said Jones told the girl, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that” and went back to her paperwork.
Video of the attack showed the girl attacked Whitney after asking permission to use a water fountain, the DJJ report found. One witness said Jones “acted like she didn’t know it was happening”; the video showed Jones responded three seconds after the assault started, the investigator reported.
Another guard, who Whitney said harassed and cursed her, was fired earlier for failing to complete her training.
Late Tuesday, DJJ announced Adams and Carmichael had been placed on a one-day paid suspension called Decision Making Leave, in which they are required to decide whether to resign or to “fully commit to acceptable job performance,” Buckner said. Any future disciplinary action would result in their firings, the department said.
Haley Bonds, Whitney’s mother, said she remains convinced of the guards’ complicity in the fights.
“It’s plain to me that they’re guilty,” she said. Whitney “still swears it’s true.”
Girls housed in the same cell block as Whitney gave conflicting accounts of the events of Dec. 6 and 7, according to written statements in DJJ’s investigative file. Some girls backed up Bonds’ allegations, while others said the guards had nothing to do with the fights. A guard and some juveniles said Whitney’s attacker said she did it so authorities would send her back to the juvenile detention center nearest her home.
The investigator also noted some witnesses were reluctant to answer questions about the fights:
“When asked, [deleted] said some of the female juveniles are afraid to tell the truth because when staff finds out they will treat the juveniles like sh**. [Deleted] aid if the staff get fired the other staff will treat them like sh** cause they got their friends fired.”
One boy told an investigator that guards at the Rome RYDC offered juveniles candy to beat others that the guards didn’t like. A prison official said the boys’ description of one such guard did not match any of the officers who worked in that boy’s cell block, the investigator reported.
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange obtained the investigative files from Haley Bonds, who received them last week from DJJ investigators after submitting a request under the Georgia Open Records Act. (The department charged her $135.) On Wednesday, DJJ released a 38-page summary that contained investigative findings and many of the same statements.
Whitney’s assailant, in her statements, denied that guards “hired” her to attack Bonds. “I got mad because she was talking all that shit,” she said in one statement. “So when she came back I f***ed her ass up.”
The victim in the Dec. 6 incident, though, said she thought Adams and Carmichael had planned the attack on her. Her statement mentions “bribery of McDonalds.”
Two girls said Whitney’s assailant had been talking about it two days earlier. Others said the girl planned the attack that night when she heard that Whitney was telling her mother about guards’ involvement in the fight the day before.
It’s unclear how Whitney’s assailant might have learned what Whitney told her mother in the visitation room. One witness said Jones, the guard who was fired, heard about it, returned to the cell block and said, “Big mouth up there running her mouth.”
The file shows that Adams, Carmichael and a supervisor, Lt. Amanda Samples, had been counseled just a week earlier against bringing food or drink from outside to the youths without authorization.
The “coaching session”
stemmed from an incident in November when guards brought chicken wings, popcorn and other treats in for several girls. DJJ found that Adams and Carmichael had left the cell block for nearly 90 minutes that day, thereby abandoning their posts.
Both Adams and Carmichael, in written statements, denied trying to persuade any of the girls to harm others.
“If we done wrong by giving the girls wings and popcorn we are wrong,” Carmichael wrote, “but I didn’t get anybody to jump anybody for nothing.”
(An earlier version of this article was published yesterday by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a project of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University.)