On April 29, 2013, around 4:16 p.m., correctional officers entered Detravia Bryant's cell at Ware State Prison, a maximum-security facility just outside Waycross, a South Georgia town a short drive from the Okefenokee Swamp.
There they discovered the 29-year-old west Atlanta native lying on the floor. According to the handwritten incident report, the convicted murderer was not breathing and had no pulse. Quinten Mallery, his cellmate, was placed in restraints and taken to the showers. After staff attempted CPR, Bryant was transported by ambulance to a hospital in Waycross. One hour after prison staff first responded to Bryant's cell, he was pronounced dead.
Corrections officials categorized Bryant's death as a suicide, family members say. It would have been unlike Bryant to take his own life, says his great uncle James Jackson.
"To my knowledge, we've never been told of one [family] member who's taken their own lives," Jackson says. "In my family, suicide is not only taboo, but what we deem unforgivable. We were all raised that way. You don't take your own life. It's a [religious] gray area where you just don't know the outcomes."
The family mourned. Bryant's body was transported to Gus Thornhill Funeral Home in East Point to be prepared for an open-casket funeral. According to Jackson, funeral home officials urged the family to come immediately with a camera to document the body. Bryant's lips and eyes were swollen. On his head were two gashes that corresponded to electric plug prongs. According to the death certificate that Jackson says was provided by the funeral home after Bryant's burial, Bryant's body showed evidence of ligature strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head. The certificate listed the cause of death as undetermined.
The family called a lawyer. Shortly thereafter, Jackson says, communications with prison officials stopped.
"They were afraid to talk to me because they knew the body would tell the truth," Jackson says. He and other family members have been calling for answers ever since. They may soon get them.
Bryant is among 33 prisoners and one corrections officer who died inside state prisons since 2010. Between 2001 and 2011, Georgia ranked sixth in the nation for total number of homicides committed in its prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More people were killed in Georgia prisons in 2012 alone than in six other states' correctional facilities during the previous 10 years, says the Southern Center for Human Rights, one of the state's leading nonprofit criminal justice advocates. One prison reported more homicides in one year than all of Pennsylvania's prisons reported in an entire decade. Criminal justice advocates and Congressman Hank Johnson, D-Ga., are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. The Georgia Department of Corrections refuses to offer almost any information on its inner workings — much less on the mysterious death of Bryant.
Sgt. C. Baker Hall was busy working at the Fulton County Jail on Oct. 23, 2009, when he heard that an inmate wanted to speak with him. Six hours later, Bryant came to Hall's office. Nearly two weeks earlier, Bryant had been arrested for theft by taking auto. What police didn't yet know was that the morning of Bryant's arrest for theft, he'd also shot and killed Jeanette Smith outside the West End Church of Christ on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.
"He said that he saw [Smith] in [sic] the TV the other day and he has not been able to sleep ever since that and he need [sic] to tell someone," Hall says in an Atlanta Police Department statement.
According to APD records, Bryant told law enforcement authorities that he'd fronted Smith a hundred dollars' worth of crack. The next morning, Bryant says he noticed Smith's red shopping cart at the church. As he confronted her about repaying him, she raised a stick. Bryant says he shot her in the stomach and then in the head and ran away. Later that day, Bryant's father called the police on his son after seeing him driving an SUV — Bryant didn't own a car or have a license. The police officer who later arrested Bryant said in a statement that he "seemed like he was in a daze, he was out of it, nervous too ... I could tell something else was on his mind."
Church secretary Gayron Johnson, who has attended the church since 1978, recalls Smith as a kind and proud woman who never asked for money and rarely would accept hospitality.
Bryant's jailhouse confession basically guaranteed he would spend the rest of his life behind bars, a footnote to a life marked by frequent run-ins with the law. According to Fulton County Jail records, Bryant had been booked at the Rice Street facility in northwest Atlanta nine times since 2012 for crimes ranging from theft by taking to criminal trespass.
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