Two internal investigations reveal Creely's death in Chatham County jail result of neglect

87 21/05/2022

This article is first in a three-part series examining the life of Lee Michael Creely, who died at the Chatham County Detention Center in September 2020. His death revealed procedural errors by both county jail guards and the privately contracted healthcare company overseeing incarcerated people, many of whom, like Creely, suffer from drug addiction. While those errors contributed to his death, Creely's life story illuminates how many in our community are born "already behind" and how life-long and intergenerational battles with drug addiction and the absence of wraparound supports has reverberating consequences not just in their own lives but throughout the community. As reporter Katie Nussbaum reported in 2021, opioid addiction "attacks all."

Before the start of every Wildcats football game, Jessica Hodges' 13-year-old son gazes into the stands, searching for his dad’s face.

When Lee Michael Creely died in the Chatham County Detention Center in early September 2020, her teenage son and his younger brother lost their dad — and their biggest fan.

The season after Lee died, her oldest son, who plays running back for his Chatham middle school, considered quitting football. It was difficult to even strap on a helmet without thinking of the man who taught him how to throw a spiral.

Before that September, every time he ran to the sidelines during a timeout, he’d huddle with his dad to discuss the defensive scheme. The mere thought of running to the sideline without his dad there conjured feelings of loneliness, caused him to start overthinking.

He considered quitting.

But he knew his dad loved seeing him play, so he decided to carry on in memory of and dedication to him. For the past two years, he’s donned a decal on his helmet with Lee’s name, birthday and the day he passed away set below a set of angel wings.

“It felt like he was with me, like he was still there,” Creely's oldest son said.

Last year, he had his best season, notching 30 touchdowns.

After games, he rolled down the windows and blasted Nas, his dad’s favorite emcee, and rapped along.

But for him and the rest of the family, grieving has been anything but easy.

When her younger son, 7 years old, stepped onto the baseball diamond for his first season, mom Jessica Hodges noticed him burying his face into his mitt a couple of times, sobbing, remembering the man who taught him how to throw.

The family attends counseling, in which they talk mostly about Lee and how his loss has changed them. When dusk turns to dawn, the family huddles together in the living room, crying and praying.

In those moments, Hodges can’t help but think of how law enforcement treated her partner, the father of her two sons, the man she met when he was 19 and she 21, when Lee Michael was on vacation with his family in Brunswick, Georgia. Back then, Lee Michael helped Hodges, who was on crutches because she broke her ankle playing softball, hobble out of her red Mustang.

“I'm haunted by how they treated him,” said Hodges. “The fact that he was alone. And that they didn’t help him. He didn’t deserve that.”

Those lasting feelings for Lee explains why she filed a lawsuit on Feb. 2, 2022, on behalf of herself, and her children, against Chatham County, Chatham County Jail, Correcthealth, the private healthcare provider in the jail, the founder and owner of Correcthealth, and nurses, sheriff deputies, and correctional officers at the jail.

Review reveals missteps, wrongdoings

Savannah Morning News reviewed thousands of public documents — two Chatham County Sheriff’s Officer internal affairs investigations, Correcthealth medical records, two autopsies, jail video footage and photographs, and police reports — to illuminate how Creely’s death cannot simply be written off as the consequences of drug addiction, but more so by a series of missteps from the lack of drug treatment to probation bureaucracy to lax administration of private healthcare within the jail to a lack of oversight from correctional officers. All of which are supported by two Chatham County internal affairs investigations, 89 pages in total, that revealed wrongdoings by guards and nurses tasked with managing and caring for inmates. This case, more than anything, raises questions as to how jails treat repeat drug offenders, and whether or not they provide them the necessary treatment not only in their custody, but as they leave their custody and attempt to reintegrate into the community.

UPDATED: Sheriff fires fourth officer in Chatham County jail inmate death; one officer arraigned Friday

CorrectHealth's website does not list a point of contact. The Savannah Morning News reached out to the Chatham County Sheriff's Office for a Correcthealth representative. Multiple calls and emails to a Correcthealth services administrator and Director Of Nursing at Chatham County Sheriff's Department and Correcthealth’s upper management were not returned.

But long before a person is incarcerated, and long before they can experience neglect from a correctional officer and a jail nurse, something in their lives led them to commit a crime.

To read the second and third part of this series, please subscribe for $1 for 6 months.

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