GUYTON, Ga. (WSAV) – Lesia Garcia is still asking questions about how and why her son died almost a year ago at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.
“I never thought I would get my son back in a body bag,” she said. “That wasn’t his sentence.”
Her son, Branden Peters, had been serving time since 2013 on charges of robbery and aggravated assault.
She hadn’t seen her son for about a year after visitors were prohibited because of COVID. So a phone call early in the morning on Nov. 23, 2020, came as an incredible shock.
“It was about 3 o’clock in the morning that I got the call from the warden,” said Garcia as she wiped away tears. “He said they were letting me know they found my son ‘unresponsive.'”
“I never thought in a million years I would have to go through something like that,” she added.
Garcia says, after the death, she was able to piece together what happened by corresponding with her son’s cellmate.
“He told me that Branden had been sick for about four or five days and they had been trying to get him some help and nobody would listen to them,” said Garcia. “He said Branden died on the floor of the cell and that he had to start a fire and flood the cell before anyone would come to the cell.”
Now, almost a year later, Garcia says she still doesn’t know the cause of death. The death certificate says an autopsy was performed, although Garcia says she has never seen the results. There is a line on the death certificate that says “pending investigation” where Garcia says the cause of death should be listed.
Garcia knows her son needed to pay his debt for his crimes.
“I mean he needed punishment, but locking him up that way and him being treated that way, that was not punishment. I mean it’s inhumane,” she said. “Animal shelters can treat their animals better than those prisoners get treated and it’s not right.”
Garcia says, ironically, Branden feared for his life, in terms of being hurt by other inmates.
“He was very scared for his life against the inmates,” she said. “I don’t think he ever thought he’d get sick and die.”
“At this point, we’re sending notice to the Department of Corrections and the state of Georgia notifying them of a potential claim arising out of the lack of care, treatment and medical assistance in the wrongful death of her son,” said Noble Boykin, Garcia’s attorney.
Garcia says if Branden had lived, he was supposed to be eligible for parole next month.
“It’s not OK and I don’t want them to think that it is. My son’s life was precious to me,” she said.
WSAV News 3 asked the Georgia Department of Corrections for its viewpoint on her assertions. We received a short statement that says, “the GDC has been in contact with Ms. Garcia and is providing information to her as it becomes available.”
The GDC did not comment on an investigation announced in September by the U.S. Justice Department.
“Under the 8th Amendment, prison officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for individuals under their supervision,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke when she announced the investigation.
Clarke said that issues of violence between inmates were a central part of their investigation, citing that in 2020, 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide.
“Concerned citizens, family members and civil rights organizations — as well as photographs and videos leaked to social media and other channels — have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons,” said Clarke.
The Justice Department says the investigation will be thorough and fair and look at issues like staffing, along with systemic problems.
Clarke stated, in general, understaffing in correctional facilities is a particular problem that can lead to inadequate supervision and violence. She said it can also prevent people from being able to access necessary medical and mental health care.
The Department of Corrections sent a statement on Sept. 14 when the Justice Department investigation was announced:
The Georgia Department of Corrections is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and denies it’s engaged in any pattern of violating their civils rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence.
The same day the investigation was announced by the Justice Department and shortly after GDC sent the above statement, a report was made that an inmate at Coastal State Prison had been stabbed. The next day, the GDC confirmed he had died of his injuries and that it was investigating.
The GDC’s website says there are 34 state prisons across the state of Georgia, which house nearly 52,000 felony offenders.
There are 15 state correctional facilities in the Southern District, which includes the Savannah area, which will be subject to the investigation.