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‘Worse Than Guantánamo’

Dozens of former detainees at the Gwinnett County jail in Georgia claim they were subjected to brutality at the hands of its Rapid Response Team.

Outside the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in March 12, 2002, in Jackson, Georgia. British national Tracy Housel was executed by lethal injection that day at the prison. Housel was given the death penalty for a 1985 murder in Gwinnett County.Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

During a night out in northern Georgia, Keven Goodwin didn’t expect to be subjected to trauma that would rival his experiences serving four years on active duty in the army.

When he was arrested in 2012 for a traffic violation and found to have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, officers took Goodwin to the Gwinnett County jail where he was placed in a cold, empty holding cell. He remembers tapping on the glass, trying to get a deputy’s attention. His shoes were outside the door, and his feet were becoming filthy.

But help never arrived for Goodwin. Instead, a team of officers wearing helmets, masks, and full riot gear entered his cell, shot him with a pepper ball gun, jumped on Goodwin and pinned him to the ground, and then put him in a restraint chair where they left him shackled for four hours.

“This is worse than a third-world country,” the 45-year-old remembers thinking. “This is worse than Guantánamo.”

He pleaded with the officers to stop assaulting him. He said he had muscle issues because of his military service, and the restraints were causing serious pain.

“I was trying to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m a disabled vet,’” he said. “‘I have injuries to my legs and I need to move around.’ But that didn’t work.”

(In court filings, attorneys for the Gwinnett County Sheriff admitted that Goodwin was placed in a restraint chair, but denied that he was shot with a pepper ball gun).

Goodwin is just one of dozens of pretrial detainees who claim they have been subjected to excessive force by Gwinnett County Sheriff R.L. “Butch” Conway’s Rapid Response Team (RRT). Located about 30 miles from Atlanta, Gwinnett is home to nearly one million residents and is Georgia’s second most populous county; its jail houses nearly 3,000 people. The RRT was created around 2001 to provide a tactical response in the event of a riot or other emergency within the jail; it has since come to be used to exert control over incarcerated people deemed to be disruptive.

According to a lawsuit originally filed in a federal court in 2013 which has 12 plaintiffs and names Sheriff Conway and Lt. Col. Carl Sims as defendants, the RRT’s use of excessive force is “frequent, pervasive, and well documented.” The detainees claim they knocked on the glass, yelled for help, or created some other minor disturbance when the RRT deployed excessive force against them, including applying pressure points on their bodies “for the purpose of inflicting pain” and placing them in a restraint chair for hours. They say that they were not acting violently or posing a threat to officers, other inmates, or the jail property.  “It’s disgusting, disturbing, and an abuse of power,” Goodwin said.

Though a federal judge in Georgia denied the plaintiffs’ request for class action status in May, the court reopened the case in late August after an amended complaint was filed. The case will most likely go to trial in the coming months. Craig Jones, a Washington, Georgia, attorney who represents the detainees, says the sheriff instructs the RRT to violate both the department’s policy against excessive force as well as the civil rights of people incarcerated at his jail. When the RRT is called to respond to an inmate, Jones says, they subject detainees to gratuitous, punitive, and sadistic pain in retaliation for alleged noncompliant behavior.

“A lot of it is just a matter of de-escalating the situation,” he said, “but once they call the Rapid Response Team, they’ve basically pulled a switch and there’s no going back. They’re not trained in de-escalation techniques. They’re trained in making a tactical entry and then a takedown. A dynamic entry and then scaring the shit out of people. And occasionally they hurt them—hurt them badly. They always inflict some kind of pain.”

Deputy Shannon Volkodav, public information officer for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment on pending litigation. But in February, the office did respond to a specific complaint from a detainee who said she didn’t receive adequate medical treatment in the jail. “If you don’t like the way we run the Gwinnett County Jail,” Volkodav wrote in a Facebook post, “stay out of it.”

Many of the plaintiffs, however, including detainees with disabilities and medical conditions, say officers ignored their pleas for medical help. Most of them claim to have lasting physical, mental, and emotional trauma because of their encounters with their RRT. Goodwin said the incident elevated the severity of the muscle issues he experiences in his legs and that he continues to be in physical pain. Similarly, another plaintiff, Coleman Martinelli, alleges that when he was booked in a 2013 DUI, the RRT violently dragged from a patrol car to a holding cell where they strapped him to a restraint bed for several hours and placed a biohazard mask on his face even after he told officers that he had PTSD from his military service.

After his arrest, Goodwin thought that his experience was an anomaly. But then one night, he turned on the news and saw video showing the RRT tackling and restraining other detainees. He called the attorney he saw on in the news segment and said he wanted to join the lawsuit.

“It brought tears to my eyes, watching video of what actually happened,” he said. “They showed me, ‘It isn’t just you.’”

Grzegorz Kozlowski said he escaped the communist Polish People’s Republic, but experienced the worst abuses of his life while detained for the night in at the Gwinnett County jail in 2013. “I had a very hard life. I was beaten and I run away,” the 60-year-old said. “What happened in the Gwinnett County jail, I never, never believe it would happen in America.”

Kozlowski says that he ended up in the jail because of a misunderstanding. A non-native English speaker, he became frustrated and angry when employees at a Sears store could not understand him as he tried to buy a pair of shoes. Store security called the police who then arrested him for disorderly conduct.

“I am right now 33 years in America,” he said. “I am not troublemaker. I grow up a good citizen. I was never criminal in Poland. I was never criminal in America.”

At the jail, Kozlowski was brought into a holding cell, where he began screaming for help. He suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, and was barely conscious when the RRT entered his cell, pulled him to the floor, jumped on him, and threw him in a restraint chair.

“They treat me worse than I treat my dogs,” he said angrily.

Years later, he “would awaken in the middle of the night several times per night, several times per week,” according to the complaint. He also continued to have problems with the parts of his wrists and ankles where he had been shackled.

“I am not criminal but doesn’t matter,” he said. “Criminal, not criminal. You’re not supposed to be treated like that. No way. That’s not normal.”

The number of such claims against the RRT are growing. After a judge rejected a motion to bring the lawsuit as a class action in late May, Jones said he sent a mailer to all 1,300 people who have been the subject of a use of force report by the RRT since 2011. 

Like Goodwin and Kozlowski, most of the detainees who have come forward to recount experiencing excessive force by the RRT have only been to the jail once, Jones said.

“The vast majority of the people who get subjected to this are not criminals,” he said. “They’re not people who have been in the jail before who know the deal. Most of them are like, drunk kids or loudmouths or people who are mentally ill.”

As the litigation proceeds in federal court, the family of Chris Howard, a 23-year-old who died in 2017 as a result of being in the Rapid Response Team’s custody has filed a lawsuit, demanding $10 million for the “negligent, reckless” actions of the officers. On Feb. 15, 2017, Howard, who was on probation because of a drunk driving accident, was booked into the Gwinnett County jail after he failed a drug test. He had a pre-existing genetic disorder that can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels; when he fell to the ground because of an apparent seizure, officers refused to get him medical attention.  After officers finally agreed to take him to the infirmary, Howard went into cardiac arrest. He died two days later.

A federal grand jury has also opened a criminal investigation into the sheriff’s office. Because the investigation is not public, Jones said it’s not clear if it is focused exclusively on Howard’s death or the RRT’s use of force in general. In August, a week before the grand jury investigation was revealed in court filings, an RRT deputy was arrested and charged with battery for allegedly punching a female inmate in the head. Last week, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that in 2015, Gwinnett County Sheriff’s deputy Robert Todd Garmon was arrested and charged with child cruelty after shaking his infant son with such intensity that his skull was fractured. Garmon returned to work as a jailer within two weeks of his arrest; he resigned from the department this summer after he entered a plea deal in the case.

Though it appears that only one detainee has died at the hands of the RRT, Goodwin says he wouldn’t be surprised if stories about other fatalities emerge.

“Anything could have happened to me in there,” Goodwin said. “I could have not come home at all.”

He said he hopes the lawsuit can put an end to the RRT before others are emotionally and physically harmed.

“I hope they’re held accountable,” he said. “I feel like my civil liberties were violated, and I know from watching the tape that they’ve done this time and time again to other people. … I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”