Hours after darkness consumed one of the shortest days of last year, a scene of utter chaos unfolded inside a juvenile corrections dormitory, pitting the young convicts locked inside against one another in a raucous battle.
The skirmish ended, indisputably, after one teenager fell face first onto the bathroom floor, lying there momentarily unconscious as blood pooled near his broken nose. He hit the deck following an altercation with a guard, a struggle violent enough to dislodge a toilet, causing water to spew onto the bathroom floor that night in December at the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker.
Following an official, monthslong inquiry into the incident, the state decided to fire the guard. The investigation found that Malachi Gee III, the guard, choked the teen until he blacked out. Gee then allowed the youth to fall unconscious to the floor and injure himself, the investigators determined.
But by the point in May when the investigation ended, Jetson had been shuttered, abruptly closed by the state in late January. Gee was just days away from starting his next job as a therapeutic guard in the nursing services department at the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System in Jackson, which treats the mentally ill, including patients charged with crimes or found not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time, nobody from the Department of Health and Hospitals was aware the agency’s new hire was under investigation for an alleged act of violence.
Last week, a reporter contacted the department about Gee’s employment status. Although he had been working in Jackson for two months without incident, Gee, 44, was promptly fired.
“As soon as we confirmed the circumstances regarding Mr. Gee’s separation from Jetson, the department took swift action to protect recipient health and safety,” Olivia Watkins, a Department of Health and Hospitals spokeswoman, said in a statement.
In the wake of Gee’s firing, health department officials are examining ways to ensure they know whether a potential hire is under investigation by a former employer. Currently, formal disciplinary action shows up in each state employee’s civil service personnel file. But it isn’t protocol for interviewers to ask job applicants or their former or current employers whether the applicant is under investigation for any reason, Watkins said.
They do, however, ask applicants whether they ever quit a job to avoid being fired, Watkins said.
Although Gee was disciplined internally by the Office of Juvenile Justice, the agency chose not to present the matter to the District Attorney’s Office for a review. Mary Livers, deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, said in a statement, “While there was sufficient evidence to prove cause for termination under Civil Service Rules, there was insufficient probable cause to support criminal charges.”
Had the internal investigators felt criminal wrongdoing occurred, they would have handed the case over to the district attorney, Livers said. She also said her staff will review policies to ensure the department provides complete and accurate information about employees to other agencies within state, federal and civil service guidelines.
Meanwhile, Gee is out of a job. And when contacted by phone, he said he hadn’t been told why.
“Not even a slap on the wrist,” Gee said. “Just straight out the door.”
Because his position was still in the probationary status at the time of his firing, state officials had the right to release him without reason. According to Gee, who spent more than a decade as a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola before going to Jetson in 2011, that’s exactly what happened.
He read over the phone a line from the separation letter sent to him: “There has been no misconduct on the employee’s behalf,” Gee said.
In the interview and when confronted by state investigators in January, Gee denied choking the boy inside the bathroom that December night. The use of force occurred on his third call to the dorm that night, while he was on “rover” patrol, in which roaming juvenile justice specialists, as the guards are called, act essentially as backups for co-workers stationed at particular dorms.
Inside the dorm that night, missiles in the form of shoes and garbage cans catapulted across the room. Books, too, constituted an effective form of ammunition. Eventually, one teen called for a cease-fire.
But his wish was not granted, and he instead became the primary target of the other youths locked inside the dormitory.
As soon as Gee entered the dorm that third time, the guard said he saw the targeted teen heading to the bathroom. Gee ordered the youth to get back in bed. But the juvenile, whose name and age were not revealed in documents detailing the incident, refused because his dormmates were ganging up on him.
“He wasn’t the problem,” Gee said. “He was just part of the problem.”
The boy was big, shirtless and sweaty. At some point, the youth shoved Gee, instigating the scuffle between the two. That’s when Gee wrapped his arms around the boy’s chest, the guard said, and it was during the ensuing struggle that the youth slipped on the water-covered floor, fell and slammed his face on the ground.
“Everybody said I tried to choke that guy,” Gee contended, saying later, “That’s far from what happened.”
But state investigators came to different conclusions, presenting another version of the story pieced together from interviews with the youths and two other guards inside the dorm at the time of the incident.
“This investigation revealed that during the use of intervention, you used your right arm and placed (the youth) in a choke hold until the youth lost consciousness,” according to a letter dated May 8 informing Gee of the state’s decision to fire him. “Upon doing so, you released your hold of the youth and allowed (the youth) to fall to the floor on his own, causing the injuries to (the youth’s) face.”
The injuries included a broken nose, lacerations and a black eye that swelled shut, according to the letter, which laid out the details of the investigation into the incident.
In interviews between an investigator and the dorm inhabitants, nearly every youth said Gee choked the teen. The only one who couldn’t say for sure was the teen himself, who told an investigator that the last thing he remembered before walking outside the dorm afterward was throwing shoes.
In fact, nearly every youth interviewed said Gee spoke chilling words into the boy’s ear right before the youth lost consciousness.
“Go to sleep,” Gee told him, according to the investigative report.
Gee, a U.S. Army veteran who completed at least one tour in the Middle East, denied speaking the phrase.
One of the other guards inside the dorm remembered Gee uttering the words, although she said she didn’t see Gee choking the youth. The other guard initially corroborated Gee’s story before being pressed by an investigator and eventually changing his statement. That guard said Gee placed the boy in a “full nelson,” a wrestling move used to render an opponent unconscious. The second guard, however, did not recall Gee telling the boy to “go to sleep,” according to statements he made summarized by the investigator.
Gee acknowledged that the guards at juvenile corrections facilities are only supposed to touch the youths as a last resort. He said after reprimanding the youths multiple times throughout the night, though, he had to intervene in order to prevent either the youths or one of his colleagues from suffering an injury. He had been attacked twice by youths in the past, he said, once suffering an injured jaw, according to an accident and injury form filled out about the incident.
“You get to the point where you just need to protect yourself,” Gee said. “Period.”
Now he’s job hunting again. But he’s glad to be away from Jetson.
“I felt safer in Iraq than I did coming to work sometimes,” Gee said.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.