Videos: 4 guards outside cell as Georgia inmate hanged himself

Mother says guards didn’t try to save her son, sent to prison for a Roswell robbery

Guards at Smith State Prison didn’t try to stop troubled inmate Richard Tavera from hanging himself until four had assembled outside his cell, videos obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

By then, more than seven minutes had passed since the first report Tavera was attempting suicide, and nothing could be done to save his life, the videos show.

The videos add to the evidence that officers stood by as the 24-year-old with a history of mental health problems killed himself with a makeshift noose in the South Georgia prison’s isolation-segregation unit.

As the AJC reported earlier this year, Tavera’s death in December 2014 is now the subject of federal lawsuits filed by the inmate’s mother, Maria Arenas of Austin, Texas. The lawsuits in Georgia and Texas claim that the Georgia Department of Corrections and various employees violated Tavera’s civil rights by letting him die.

The prison incident report indicates that two officers didn’t immediately intervene even though they could see Tavera looping one end of a bedsheet around a sprinkler in the ceiling and the other around his neck. According to the incident report, the door to the inmate’s cell wasn’t opened until a third officer, a lieutenant, arrived.

The incident report was the basis of Arenas’ lawsuits when they initially were filed. But now her attorneys have amended the Georgia lawsuit based on additional evidence, including surveillance video from outside the cell and video taken by an officer with a handheld camera after the group went inside.

Showing how the incident unfolded in real time, the videos indicate that four officers were actually on the scene before the door was opened. When the men finally entered the cell, the videos indicate Tavera’s body was hanging limp and lifeless. The handheld video also shows that then the officers didn’t even have the proper tool to cut Tavera down.

One of Arenas’ attorneys, Jeff Edwards, said he believes the videos are an even more explicit sign that the suicide could have been prevented.

“Correctional officers aren’t supposed to let people die in front of them, let alone four officers,” he said.

Joan Heath, the Georgia Department of Corrections’ director of public affairs, said no one from the department can comment on the videos because of the ongoing litigation.

The department’s standard operating procedures require that at least two officers be present when a cell door is opened in isolation-segregation. The policy is an industry standard because isolation-segregation, also known as lockdown, is where prisons typically house their most disruptive inmates.

Even so, correctional experts have told the AJC that emergencies demand that the second officer be on the scene as quickly as possible, preferably in less than four minutes.

In Tavera’s case, the surveillance video shows that more than five minutes passed before a second officer arrived, and, even when that officer did show up, neither man entered the cell. In fact, the video shows a third officer coming to the cell about 20 seconds after the second. Still, none of the men went inside.

It was only after the fourth officer arrived and another two minutes had gone by that the group finally opened the door.

All told, 7 and 1/2 minutes elapsed from the time the first officer looked into Tavera’s cell and the four went inside.

At that point, the video from the handheld camera shows Tavera hanging from the sprinkler.

The handheld video shows the officers taking Tavera down, but even that proved time-consuming as the men struggled for nearly 90 seconds to untie the sheet.

Tools for cutting down suicidal inmates — usually knives or shears — have become standard issue in correctional institutions, but apparently nothing of that kind was available when the officers dealt with Tavera.

Heath did not immediately respond to a query from the AJC seeking to know whether Georgia prisons are required to have such tools.

Once the guards finally summoned paramedics, confusion still reigned, according to a recording of the 911 call. The official who called struggled to tell the dispatcher why EMS was needed or if Tavera was breathing.

Approximately 25 minutes after the guards entered Tavera’s cell, paramedics arrived at the prison, but he was pronounced dead before he could be transported to a hospital, according to the incident report.

Tavera was sentenced to three years in prison in November 2012 after he and three other men from Austin who had come to Atlanta for construction work robbed three employees of a Roswell Publix after they left the store.

Tavera had a history of mental issues, including bipolar disorder, and the day before his suicide he had become erratic in the prison infirmary. After a nurse noted that he was shaking and refusing to be sent back to his dormitory, he was taken to lockdown.

In the incident report, the first officer on the scene, John Calhoun, said he saw Tavera trying to hang himself and instructed him to stop. Calhoun said he then put out four radio calls saying he had an attempted suicide in his unit.

The report quotes another officer, Sgt. Mark Shelby, as saying he answered the call, saw Tavera with the sheet around his neck and shouted several times, “Hey, hey.” Shelby said Lt. Marvin Dickson then arrived and ordered Calhoun to open the door.

Shelby estimated that he arrived at the cell about 10 minutes after hearing Calhoun’s call.

Dickson said he heard Calhoun’s call for help and retrieved two video cameras and pepper spray before going to Tavera’s cell. He did not list the time he arrived.

None of the accounts state why the situation wasn’t treated more urgently or why the door wasn’t opened when the first two officers arrived.

Arenas contends that the prison’s former warden, Stanley Williams, had a policy prohibiting guards from entering cells without permission from a lieutenant or higher ranking officer. However, the AJC has yet to see evidence that such a policy existed.

Arenas’ Georgia lawsuit names the Department of Corrections along with Shelby, Dickson and Williams as defendants. The Texas suit names only Calhoun, now a resident of that state.

In addition to the civil rights claim, the Georgia suit contends that the Department of Corrections violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in its treatment of Tavera’s mental illness.

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