ATLANTA — The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the apparent Easter Sunday suicide of a 14-year-old boy at an Atlanta-area youth detention facility, reportedly after a guard did not respond to calls for help.
Two juvenile witnesses said they called to a correctional officer beforehand to warn that the youth was threatening to kill himself, but the guard did not respond, according to documents released this afternoon by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
One juvenile witness said the unidentified youth “was calling me & telling me to tell the officer he was going to kill his self. But the officer wouldn’t go see what he wanted. At 11:45 they put us up & seen the body hanging.”
In a written statement, the witness said he cried and panicked during the incident.
A third juvenile, asked what the staff could have done differently, wrote in his statement: “Listen when a youth says something.”
The unidentified youth was found hanging from the sprinkler system in his cell with his jumpsuit tied around his neck, according to an incident report released by DJJ.
A written statement by a guard assigned to the unit hinted that understaffing might have lengthened his response time. He wrote that he was “the only officer” on the C1 residential unit at the time of the incident, and that he and another officer were occupied escorting youths who had refused to return to their rooms from the dayroom.
Turnover has been a recurring problem among DJJ’s detention officers, with a 2014 study showing 57 percent of entry-level guards had resigned the year before. The guard assigned to the unit was not on the department’s payroll last June, according to information on the state auditor’s website.
Before the incident, the guard wrote, the victim “was making verbals about suicide … I called C-control room for assistance. Then mental health called to talk me through … getting [the youth] to cooperate.”
Once the youth was seen hanging, the guard wrote, “I rushed to secure the youth I was escorting to his room and then to [the youth’s] room fast as I could.” He and a supervisor freed the youth from the makeshift noose, laid him on the floor and tried to resuscitate him.
While the death has tentatively been labeled a suicide, GBI public affairs director Sherry Lang said agents are conducting a full-blown investigation of the circumstances of the youth’s death.
“When we go in and work a death investigation, we work it like a criminal investigation,” Lang said. The GBI’s jurisdiction includes crimes committed in state detention and penal institutions and on other state properties.
It was not immediately clear whether the DJJ had identified the boy as a suicide risk, which would have triggered policies aimed at preventing youths in detention from harming themselves.
The boy was being held at the Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, a 200-bed campus of the state DJJ located in south DeKalb County.