EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth installment of a 10-part series on the top stories of 2012.
More than 13 months after one inmate beat another to death in his cell, the Augusta Youth Development Campus is far from being drama-free.
The facility made headlines almost monthly after 18-year-old Michael Everidge killed Jade Holder, 19, in a November 2011 fight that court testimony described as the result of a culture of violence.
Since the slaying, the state Department of Juvenile Justice has fired, moved or demoted more than a dozen employees, citing policy violations ranging from smuggling phones to inappropriate relationships with youths.
After Holder’s death, Gov. Nathan Deal pulled the department’s commissioner and appointed Gale Buckner, who made numerous unannounced visits that frequently ended in firings. She was up to 11 when she retired a year later to become a judge.
In October, Everidge was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Just hours after the gavel fell, five inmates escaped the facility, stole a car and led police on a two-day chase from Augusta to Atlanta.
A timeline of events showed the escape occurring at 8:40 p.m., but there was no record of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office being contacted, leaving Juvenile Justice spokesman Jim Shuler to guess that the call was made about 10:05. Sheriff’s dispatch records showed the call was made closer to 10:30.
The reason for the delay was never made public, but on Dec. 14 Shuler announced the firings of Junior Corrections Officer Dominique Harris and Corrections Sgt. Dorothy Blair over a “major security failure.”
Harris was in charge of the head count in the unit where the inmates were missing. Blair did not follow emergency protocol or conduct a proper perimeter check and gave false information during an investigation of the escape, a news release said.
The YDC has experienced a complete turnover among top personnel in the past 12 months. The director at the time of Holder’s death was dismissed and replaced by Sardis Police Chief Gary Jones on an interim basis. During his brief tenure, from the end of November 2011 until the beginning of March, many staff members were released as a result of Buckner’s visits.
In March, Buckner introduced Ronald Brawner, who had a 21-year career with the Georgia Department of Corrections. Brawner said that he understood the YDC was a troubled facility but that “anytime you take on a new position or a new job, you have to step up to the plate and understand challenges before you.”
An internal audit in August detailed numerous violations of department policy, a lack of qualified staffers, improper admission procedures and a general lack of oversight in several areas.
Brawner resigned Nov. 15 and his deputy, Melvin Womble, stepped in. A month later, he was suspended with pay after a fight among five youths went unreported to the department’s central office. A 17-year-old’s jaw was broken, but he was not transferred to a hospital for several days.
Buckner left the department in October and was replaced by Avery Niles, whom Deal praised as a “stalwart, dedicated and dependable” leader. Niles previously served as warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution and is a 23-year veteran of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
Niles has promised to fix the issues at the facility, saying that the audit’s findings “will not be tolerated” and that he will continue with staff changes until he is satisfied the problems are resolved.