Wikileaks cable reveals U. N. looked into Georgia prison torture allegations

Stokes said the majority of claims were based at two prisons (Source: WALB)
Stokes said the majority of claims were based at two prisons (Source: WALB)
Published: Feb. 28, 2018 at 2:15 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 at 2:17 PM EST
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Stokes said claims of abuse have decreased (Source: WALB)
Stokes said claims of abuse have decreased (Source: WALB)
McNeill Stokes, attorney (Source: WALB)
McNeill Stokes, attorney (Source: WALB)
The operator of a advocacy Facebook group is calling for more transparency (Source: WALB)
The operator of a advocacy Facebook group is calling for more transparency (Source: WALB)

WALB - Cries of brutal torture in Georgia prisons have prompted one man to file more than 40 lawsuits against Georgia Department of Corrections Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) members.

The claims not only piqued the attention of local advocates, but compelled the United Nations to get involved.

Georgia attorney McNeill Stokes said he believes he put a stop to torture in Georgia prisons or at least curbed it substantially.

Stokes filed lawsuits about incidents that inmates said occurred between 2003 and 2008. Similar cases were still navigating the Georgia court system as recently as three years ago.

On the other end of the phone, a woman is speaking who only wants to be identified as 'Grace'.

She said she fears that her loved-ones in prison would be harassed if her name was revealed.

"I was like, on one hand, I've got this family member and I've got to deal with this issue, but on the other hand, I'm a taxpayer and I was deceived," said Grace.

'Grace' is explaining why she felt compelled to operate the Inside Georgia Prisons Facebook pagewhich advocates for inmates' rights and acts as a forum for those upset with the system.

"I was wrong," she explains. "You know, oh my god, we're spending all this money, and my family member just keeps getting worse."

Attorney McNeill Stokes said, in some cases, not only have Georgia prisons lost their ability to rehabilitate, but punishment has gone too far.

"I got all these cards and letters coming in," said Stokes. "A lot of them say, I've gotten beaten up by the CERT teams. At first, I discounted it."

Stokes said he kept getting those messages, primarily from Rogers and Valdosta State Prisons. So, he looked into them.

"This wasn't just reactive, where you call him some word and the guy hits him," said Stokes. "It was an organized sport."

Stokes said inmates claimed they were being beaten with fists and leather gloves while handcuffed, and some claimed to be put through what was called "the 'Georgia Motorcycle'", where they were chained to chairs without food, water or the ability to use the bathroom for 24 hours, and worse.

"A thing was called the 'Georgia G-String' where they would chain people through their testicles," said Stokes. "Just pure torture, in addition to beating them up."

Stokes eventually ended up filing 44 lawsuits, some with multiple plaintiffs, against CERT members in Georgia related to incidents between 2003 to 2008.

The suits were filed against those teams responsible for controlling unruly inmates, conducting shakedowns and interviewing and interrogating offenders.

"All these cases aren't all won," said Stokes. "It's just a matter of filing suit and bringing them to the forefront."

According to court documents, the majority of cases where plaintiffs claimed abuse were dismissed, a handful were decided in favor of the defendants by a jury, and several were settled.

A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice press release does show some convictions were made related to CERT team abuses at Macon State Prison.

Justice Department officials were quoted as saying:

Eight former corrections officials from Macon State Prison now have been sentenced for criminal conduct that ranged from beating inmates to obstructing our investigation.

Stokes says other cases lost on technicalities still got people fired, but he felt unsettled by how the Georgia Attorney General's Office approached the cases while representing state employees.

"They always took the adversarial approach in fighting it," said Stokes. "I said you ought to be indicting these people."

So, in addition to filing lawsuits, he thought he'd reach out to the United Nations to make them aware of what he says to be human rights violations.

"Georgia prisons, certainly in the prisons, we're like a third world country," said Stokes. "Beating up, torturing the prisoners. I even would allege torture in the cases I filed in the United Nations treaty against torture and even filed a complaint with the United Nations, but nothing ever came of it."

Documents, which were released by Wikileaks show, that's not necessarily the case.

So, we surprised Stokes with a cable, verified through logs on the U.N. website.

"This is a reply, yeah, I've never seen this before," said Stokes.

The document shows the intergovernmental organization reached out to the United States in 2008 about the allegations of torture in the Georgia state prison system.

The cable asks members of the federal government to respond to claims being made seemingly related to Stokes' complaints.

"The 'Georgia Motorcycle' is in here," said Stokes. "This is in response to my complaint. I didn't know. I didn't get anything back from them, but they talk about the abuses I brought to their attention."

A number of South Georgia prisons were listed on the correspondence.

"People think this isn't their issue, but this is everyone's issue," said Grace.

So, we reached out to the Georgia Department of Corrections for a response and records request.

A GDC spokesperson refused to go on camera and answer our specific questions about complaints about CERT member actions over the past couple of years, or allow us access to their facilities but issued this statement.

The GDC takes all allegations of abuse seriously, and any instances are investigated by the Office of Professional Standards. Any findings of Misconduct are dealt with swiftly and can result in actions such as termination and criminal charges.

That spokesperson also wrote in an email that the department had no information related to the United Nations Request for Response and was not able to comment on it.

Grace said she wants the Department of Corrections to be more open about issues on the inside.

"There needs to be more transparency," said Grace. "Nobody is going to hold them accountable and we think we know why. The good old boys system in Georgia is very much alive and well."

If that infringes on the safety of inmates, it's something Stokes said he's prepared to fight and has become his calling.

"I come from a long line of lawyers and every generation we take on causes," said Stokes. "I guess it's my turn."

The Georgia Attorney General's Office declined to comment. We have not received a reply to a media inquiry sent to the United Nations.

While Stokes said he believes the abuses have stopped, we wanted to check for ourselves by submitting open records requests with the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Our initial inquiry was made last December.

Ultimately, we requested internal complaints and investigations related to Correctional Emergency Response Teams in South Georgia facilities.

Employees at the Department of Corrections told us last week that, in order to fulfill our request, we would need to pay $2,800 for an analyst to create a program to identify records specifically regarding CERT complaints.

Then, an additional fee of around $14 an hour would be charged to redact private information from the documents.

We were later told that we could have our requests fulfilled with only the hourly redaction fee applied, but Department staff was not able to tell us when our request would be completed if we decided to move forward.

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