Crime

Family, friends of inmate beaten at Forsyth prison rally for reform

Hours after most of the judges and attorneys had gone home for the day, about 100 people stood in the Augusta Judicial Center's parking lot Wednesday and asked for justice.

They promised to fight for the safety of Cortez Berry, 18, an Augusta man beaten by fellow inmates at a Forsyth prison March 27 and forced to kneel on the ground with a rope wrapped around his neck like a leash, the other end looped around the fist of an inmate standing behind him. A cellphone photo of the attack taken inside the prison went viral on social media and received international news coverage.

Berry's father, Frank Bernard Berry, encouraged his family and supporters to use the attack as momentum to demand prison reform in a system rattled with violence and corruption.

"It ain't just for my son, it's for everybody," Berry said. "God put that leash on him to help everybody else."

Berry said he last spoke to his son on the phone Tuesday and that he was in protective custody at the Burress Correctional Training Center pending a transfer to Smith State Prison in Glenville, where he was moved Wednesday.

But because of constant communication among inmates across the state using contraband cellphones, Berry's family said they fear another attack awaits Berry at Smith State.

Since 2010, 33 prisoners and one officer have been killed by inmates in Georgia prisons, with more homicides in 2012 than many states had in the past 10 years, according to a July 2014 report by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The center labeled Smith State as "perhaps the most dangerous prison in the state," with 21 percent of the 33 homicides of Georgia prisoners since 2010 taking place there.

Family friend Tandra Williams said she doubts the Department of Corrections' ability to protect inmates, given the high rate of violence, the ease of obtaining cellphones in prison and an apparent lack of vigilance by guards.

With the publicity over the attack, Williams said the only safe resolution for Berry is for him to be removed from state facilities and finish his sentence on house arrest or probation.

"We're actually glad the cellphone was in there, because we may never have known about this," Williams said. "They could have killed him, and it would be too late. It doesn't matter what you did to get in there. You can't treat people like that."

Berry was 14 when he was arrested in connection with an Oct. 28, 2011, armed robbery, in which two victims said four males approached them with guns and demanded money on Dugas Street. According to Augusta Chronicle reports, the robbers struck one person in the head, stole the keys to a Ford F-150 and drove off in the pickup.

Berry was charged with aggravated assault, theft of a motor vehicle and robbery and sentenced to probation.

Berry's mother, Demetria Harris, said his probation was revoked in November 2013 at age 16 for violating terms, and he was ordered to serve the rest of his eight-year sentence in confinement. He was first sent to the Augusta Youth Development Campus and was transferred to the medium-security Burress Correctional when he turned 17 last year, Harris said.

Berry's girlfriend was the first to learn of the attack after an inmate called her cellphone, demanding $150 in exchange for Berry's safety, according to the girl's mother, Connie Kennedy.

The inmate called a second time demanding $300 but hung up before Kennedy could get on the phone to ask questions.

Kennedy's daughter then found the photo of Berry circulating on Facebook, which sparked a whirlwind of questions for his family. Harris said nobody from the Corrections Department contacted her about the attack, which she said occurred at about 3:15 p.m. Friday, and officials did not return her repeated calls over the weekend or this week.\

Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said Wednesday that the department would not comment about the details of the case or the people involved amid an ongoing investigation.

Berry's father begged the crowd to continue to demand reform from prison officials and protection for all inmates.

He looked toward children in the crowd and gave them a strong message as well.

"Y'all young kids, keep your head in them books," he said. "That picture? I don't care if you have to print it out and put it in your book. That's a picture to show you don't go that route."

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