Nerissa Wright says by the time the body of her son DonTavis Mintz came home to Macon from Ware State Prison, she only knew him by a single tooth. 

“Because he had some dental work done when he was small,” Wright said.  “He had broken his teeth. That’s how I knew him, by his tooth.”

Mintz was 24 when he died, somehow, in state custody, making him a part of a larger pattern of deaths in Georgia prisons which have drawn scrutiny not just from prison reform activists, but also from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The DOJ says 26 people were killed in Georgia prisons in 2020. That was twice the deaths in the year previous and over three times the toll the year before that. What’s more, the average number of recorded suicides has quintupled in Georgia prisons after 2017. 

When the DOJ announced its investigation into the violence earlier this year, chronic understaffing of prison guards was cited as a likely cause of conditions so unsafe the federal agency worried they violated the U.S. Constitution. 

“Our investigation will examine whether the state of Georgia adequately protects prisoners held at the close and medium security levels from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners, as required by the Eighth Amendment,” Assistant US Attorney General Kristen Clarke said during a press conference rolling out the investigation. 

Nerissa Wright is asking related, if not quite as far-reaching, questions.

Wright said her son DonTavis, the boy with the broken tooth, was a lot like any other kid. 

“He has other sisters and brothers that he loved being around,” Wright said of the son whose name she tends to shorten as Dante. “He loved playing basketball or playing football. He was into sports. Just a normal kid before everything happened.”

She said things changed when Mintz began running with an older, tougher crowd. Prosecutors would later call it a gang. 

When he was 16, Mintz and a 20-year-old friend broke into a home in the affluent Macon suburbs, robbed the owner and took him hostage. Days later, Mintz killed another teen, Alyssa Jackson.

And so by age 18, Mintz was serving two simultaneous life sentences: one for the robbery and another for the murder. 

His mother says for a while she talked to her son almost daily through the official channels provided by the Department of Corrections. 

“You can write on the tablet back and forth — communicate — or he was calling,” Wright said. “This is how I knew something was wrong because Dante was calling me two or three times a day sometimes.”

Unbeknownst to her, Mintz was using other means to talk to a prison reform activist, Brian Randolph, about conditions at Ware State Prison. 

“DonTavis originally contacted us about a year and-a-half ago, maybe almost two years ago, you know, through Facebook,” Randolph said, “I'm sure, with the contraband cellphone.”

Randolph runs the Facebook page Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia.  

It’s filled with videos of violence in prisons — all taken on cellphones, which prisoners are barred from possessing. Videos also document more prosaic things, like what prison meals look like. Mintz was adding to that body of evidence. 

“And we started talking to a host of other gentlemen,” Randolph said. “And his stories matched up with their stories.”

And then, Randolph says, the flow of information stopped. He believes that’s because guards found Mintz’s phone, sending him into what the Georgia Department of Corrections calls the tier system.

The tier system is supposed to address wrongdoing and behavioral challenges within the Department of Corrections,” said Atteeyah Hollie, attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “But it really is just an extreme form of isolation and solitary confinement.”

Solitary confinement is one technique used to correct behavior in the tier system. The Georgia Department of Corrections says a term in solitary confinement is supposed to last a minimum of nine months.

That's my understanding of their policy,” Hollie said. “But what we're seeing on the ground is that people can stay there for even longer. Over a year, sometimes over two years.”

That’s for offenses ranging from acts of violence to, as is thought to have been the case for DonTavis Mintz, having a contraband cellphone.

And while it’s known that even under proper supervision that solitary confinement increases a person’s risk of suicide, Hollie said since Georgia prisons lack proper supervision, the suicide problem is only worse. 

What we know is that there is a staffing crisis in this state, and prisons like Georgia State Prison, for example, has a staff vacancy rate of 70%,” Hollie said. “Seven out of 10 officers are not coming to work there.”

That’s a fact included in the Southern Center for Human Rights’ lawsuit against Georgia State Prison. 

According to state data, the number of corrections officers working across the entire department of corrections has dropped by just over 35% in the past decade. Meanwhile, the state prison population has barely changed. 

“The officers that should be there to check on their status, to check on their well-being, are not there,” Hollie said. 

That’s why the Department of Justice is looking at the connection between understaffing and the spike in suicide in Georgia prisons — an investigation Hollie says began in 2016 but was paused until this year. 

That DonTavis Mintz was in Tier 2 solitary confinement is really just Randolph’s best guess, based on how neither he nor Wright heard from Mintz for months.

The last thing Wright heard was that guards had looked in on Mintz and he was OK. Then two weeks later, she was told he was dead. That was in August 2021. 

Brian Randolph said other inmates told him it was days after Mintz died before guards realized it. That rhymes with what Nerissa Wright says about what she saw when her son’s body was returned home. 

"He was deteriorating," Wright said. "It was to the point that I couldn't have an open casket. And when I view my child..."

Wright took a long pause to collect herself. 

"When I see my son, I couldn't hardly recognize him." 

That was why she was forced to identify DonTavis by that single, distinctive tooth. It’s also why she is left with questions. 

“If he's laying there a couple of days, that means no one fed him,” Wright said. “How did he eat? Who did counts? Who came around to check on them?”

In documents secured through an open records request, the Georgia Department of Corrections lists Dontavis Mintz’s cause of death as “undetermined.” Which they say means they might still be investigating. 

But GDC calls the reports at the end of death investigations "state secrets". They will not release the information. 

Which means Nerissa Wright may never get answers to her questions.

Wright knows it may be hard for a lot of people to care about the death of a convicted murderer. 

“I mean, they're in prison, true enough,” Wright said. “But still, they are human. They belong to somebody.” 

The investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into Georgia prison conditions is expected to last a year.