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PHOTOS

Posted: March 30, 2015

Disturbing cellphone photo sheds light on prison culture and contraband problem

By Ernie Suggs

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Disgusting.

Barbaric.

Who cares?

Those are some of the comments surrounding what appears to be a degrading image smuggled out of the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Georgia., of an 18-year-old prisoner. In one disturbing frame, the horrors of prison life are exposed, while also revealing the prison system’s ongoing struggle to keep facilities free of cellphones and other contraband.

It looks like a scene from the television show “Oz.”

Or something done by ISIS.

Cortez Berry is seen passively kneeling before the camera.

His left eye is shut from an obvious beating.

A makeshift leash is around his neck.

A man with a white hat on holds the leash. It is wrapped around his left hand, as one would do to hold a dog tight. Another man points at the camera as if holding a gun.

They are all shirtless.

Gwendolyn Hogan, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Corrections, confirmed that it was Berry in the photograph. She wouldn’t comment on when the photo was taken, who took it or who the other men in the photo were, as all of that information is part of an ongoing investigation.

“We are fully aware of that photo and currently investigating,” Hogan said Monday afternoon.

The photo has been circulating on social media since at least Friday. Austin Rhodes, a radio talk show host in Augusta, said that on Sunday night, he received the photograph from “friends and family” of Berry, who had tried unsuccessfully to share it with television news outlets in Augusta. Rhodes posted it on The Austin Rhodes Show’s Facebook page and it exploded.

“They said they wanted attention and I said you are gonna get it,” Rhodes said.

As of 2:10 p.m. Monday, more than 1,000 people had commented on two posts he made about it.

— Bee Angie Bee: “This is sad.. But they youngins need to realize 'being about that life' is truly not the life you want to live. Sad he is being put in the predicament he is in..but he made his bed..now he must lie in it..

— Greg Lazenby: “Wait how are they able to take pictures? Guards should be fired!”

— Lee Marion: “Perhaps he’ll remember this experience before he breaks the law again.”

— Ladybugg Carpenter: “Damn that’s sad!! What did he do to make them treat him this way!!”

“My heart sank when I saw the picture,” Berry’s mother, Demetria Harris, said. “I was yelling, hollering and screaming. I got on the phone immediately and called down there.”

On Friday Berry’s aunt, Shavondria Wright of Jonesboro, drove to Forsyth to try to visit her nephew. She said the “beatings started” around 3:30 p.m. on March 27. She was at the prison by 9:30 p.m.

“When I saw him, I was just so hurt,” Wright said. “I was in tears to see his face like that.”

Wright said Berry told her that he was jumped by about 10 others after he refused to join their gang.

“What I don’t understand is why they put the leash around his neck,” Wright said, adding that her nephew is now in protective custody.

In 2014, when the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) released its “The Crisis of Violence in Georgia’s Prisons” report about the rise in violence, torture and homicides in the Georgia prison system, one of the most reurring themes was the use of cellphones to commit crimes and extort people.

Berry’s mother said there was never an attempt to extort her family.

Someone simply posted the photo of her oldest son on Facebook.

“Cellphones are often used to commit and plan crimes outside of prison, but also to incite violence and to extort family members who are incarcerated,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney with the SCHR. “We hear from family members all the time that they will receive a text picture of their loved ones, who have been beaten with the message, ‘pay us money or something will happen.’ There is a crisis in security in the Georgia prison system. Every prisoner has or had access to a cellphone.”

In 2012, the AJC reported that corrections officials confiscated more than 8,700 illegal cellphones the year before. In 2013, NBC News reported that, in 2012, 13,500 cellphones were confiscated from Georgia prisons.

“First and foremost, the Department does not tolerate contraband and takes very seriously its mission of protecting the public and running safe and secure facilities,” Hogan said. “The problem plaguing the corrections system nationwide is one that the [Georgia DOC] is aware of and continuously works to utilize extensive resources to combat this issue.”

Hogan said in October 2011, the DOC purchased several products to help facilities detect cellphones and electronics. As of July 2012, all facilities were fully equipped, she said.

She said the department – at select facilities — has also instituted a cellphone access management system which prohibits unlawfully possessed cellphones from operating within facilities; installed infrared cameras to detect them; and have started to use low-dosage body scanners to check staff and visitors for contraband.

“It is hard to see it on the Internet,” Wright said. “But in this situation, I am kind of grateful that they had contraband, or we wouldn’t have known about this.”

None of that seems to have helped Berry, who wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout.

The 18-year-old Augusta native began serving an eight-year term on March 31, 2014 on an aggravated assault charge.

In 2011, when he was only 14 years old, he was arrested for armed robbery and carjacking and sent to the Richmond County Youth Detention Center.

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