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Prietz was fired almost four months after Lee's death for neglecting to check on Lee every 30 minutes the night he died. Prietz no longer lives at the address listed on his termination papers and could not be tracked down for comment.
Although it was not Hill's job to look after Lee and Murphy (he guarded the downstairs cells), he was fired, too, five days after Prietz. Hill's termination papers say he falsely indicated that he'd conducted rounds every half-hour. It appeared that Hill signed every inmate's door sheet every 30 minutes, but according to prison officials he couldn't have done so.
Documents obtained by CL, however, show Hill was terminated over a mere four-minute discrepancy. Hill last signed the sheets at 5:23 a.m.; prison officials claim he'd been called upstairs for help at 5:19 a.m. and therefore must have lied.
Hill says he simply misstated the exact time -- and became the Department of Corrections' scapegoat after he complained that Prietz, who'd worked as a guard for seven months, wasn't qualified to guard the J-Building. He says Prietz wasn't trained to handle the specific needs of J-Building's population: the mentally disturbed, the violently aggressive and the spooked and endangered.
"I blame the young man that was with me a little bit, but I don't blame him a lot," Hill says. "Because the person that put [Prietz] in that building ought to have known better."
That, however, is not something prison officials wanted to hear -- or are accustomed to hearing, according to Hill.
"You know, everybody's gonna cover everybody's butt," he says. "Ain't nobody going to say nothing. Because who's going to tell on their fellow officers?"
As the prison was reaching its decision to fire Prietz and Hill, Cassandra Lee was urging her mother to find an attorney who could figure out who was to blame in Lee's death. In their search, however, they stumbled upon another ugly reality: Federal law makes it easy for states to ignore inmates' constitutional rights -- and, as a result, their deaths.
The simplest way to explain the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which went into effect in 1996, is to say it overshot its target. The point was to curb the number of frivolous lawsuits inmates were filing, and there were frivolous suits aplenty. The manner chosen to curtail them, as mandated by the Act, is where the problem comes in.
Rather than discourage inmates from clogging federal courts with lawsuits alleging something as trivial as stolen sneakers (and there were such lawsuits, hand-written by inmates who had nothing but years of time on their hands), the law discouraged attorneys from taking prisoners' cases. The law caps the amount of fees attorneys can accept in the event of a settlement in a prisoner's rights case. And since few inmates have the cash to pay attorneys up front, the fees are usually the only way attorneys get paid.
Prison cases, it's important to note, are notorious for taking more time and investigation than your average lawsuit. More work and less pay isn't exactly an attractive combination.
"A case of a slip and fall at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store up the street is more lucrative than a murder case where a guard kills an inmate, and that's because of the law," says Courtland Reichman, an attorney in the Atlanta office of mega-firm King & Spalding.
Reichman represented an inmate named Lealon Muldrow, who was badly beaten by guards and chained to his bed for six days at a federal prison in Georgia. After logging 2,000 hours on the case, Reichman settled with the feds. It was the first and only federal inmate settlement to come out of the South. It was for $99,000.
The last significant settlement against a state prison in Georgia totaled $280,000 -- and was split among 14 inmates and their lawyers.
It's cheaper for the Department of Corrections to let someone die, face a lawsuit and offer whatever settlement it pleases than to make changes that would prevent deaths in the first place, Reichman argues. So it's no surprise that Kitchen was shot down by attorney after attorney. Despite the obvious culpability for her son's untimely death, the case wasn't a moneymaker.
The surprise is that an attorney found her.
Marion Chartoff, with the Southern Center for Human Rights, learned about Lee's death after interviewing inmates at Autry. It was stunning news. The Southern Center had flat-out warned Autry officials that inmate-on-inmate violence was about to get out of hand in J-Building -- weeks before it actually got out of hand in J-Building.
Chartoff began hunting for Lee's family. She found Johnnie Kitchen through the funeral home where Lee's body was delivered. She figured she had the perfect remedy for the mother's distress: Reichman. At Chartoff's urging, Reichman and fellow King & Spalding attorney Melissa Cannady volunteered to look into Lee's death.
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