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Max Blau

Three years after the I-85 fire, Basil Eleby is turning his life around

Basil Eleby
Basil Eleby completed his two-year behavioral health court program this past week.

Photograph by Max Blau

In the spring of 2017, as firefighters doused the flames that had consumed Interstate 85, Atlanta first met Basil Eleby. Newspapers ran his mugshot, while TV news aired footage of his perp walk outside the Fulton County Jail. The 39-year-old Atlanta native, who had spent his days sleeping in a car and struggling with drug addiction, faced charges in connection with the fire that could have kept him in prison until he was in his sixties. But the media frenzy spurred a team of civil rights attorneys to represent Eleby pro bono. And they ultimately brokered a deal with prosecutors: Eleby’s charges would be dropped if he completed a two-year behavioral health court program.

On Friday morning, in the Fulton Government Center, more than 100 people saw Eleby’s mugshot once again. But they weren’t simply presented with an image from his past—it was a reminder of how far he’d come. For on the other side of the room, they could see the 42-year-old—sharply dressed in a brown-plaid suit, with a trimmed soul patch—smiling widely and laughing with his attorneys. Eleby was not only relieved to see the charges dismissed, but also the fact his court-mandated program has led to over two years of sobriety.

“I feel like a new person—a person that’s accomplished something,” Eleby told me afterwards. “I’ve never accomplished nothing, or graduated from anything.”

Basil Eleby
Eleby graduated from the program on Friday.

Photograph by Max Blau

Nine months after the fire was extinguished, I started following Eleby for an Atlanta feature that focused on the rare opportunity he’d received to rebuild his life from the ashes of the fire. Eleby had gotten off to a rough start: At the time, he was struggling from a recent relapse, and overwhelmed by the work long-term sobriety would entail. As we drove around Atlanta, through the west side neighborhoods of his childhood, he described the trauma he’d faced growing up, which he said forced him to become self-reliant and, at times, self-destructive. Drugs helped numb the pain from an early heartbreak. “The cycle just started, man,” he described in a video played at his behavioral health court program graduation. “My goal was to numb myself of the pain of being depressed and being hurt.”

With the support of his lawyers—along with a small army of pastors and advocates—Eleby learned to be resilient. He rode the train to 12-step meetings, showed up to court hearings, and worked a part-time job at his lawyer’s office. He stumbled at times, too. One day in 2018, Eleby was frustrated over losing his phone, which caused a delay in paying off the fees needed to reinstate his driver’s license. Faced with those setbacks, he did not fall back into using drugs or alcohol. Instead, he persevered. As he strung together days of sobriety, he focused on his long-term goals: a bank account, a truck, his own apartment, and a girlfriend who was also drug-free.

Basil ElebyBasil Eleby“He was conditioned to not be forthcoming, living in a car for as long as he had,” said Derrick Rice, pastor at the Sankofa United Church of Christ, one of the key people who helped Eleby after the fire. “Once he realized we were serious about establishing a relationship, his approach became different. Basil is more genuinely accountable.”

Nearly three years after the fire, and after untold therapy sessions and recovery meetings, Eleby heard his name called out Friday by Rebecca Rieder, a Fulton County Superior Court Judge who oversees the accountability court. With his head held high, Eleby walked across the floor of the government center’s assembly hall, received a medal for his participation, and hugged the judge. Afterwards, a small gaggle TV reporters peppered Eleby with questions about the day of the fire. Eleby kept his cool, calmly maintaining his innocence, as he’s done since the day of the fire.

Basil Eleby
Eleby talks to reporters outside the Fulton Government Center

Photograph by Max Blau

When I asked Eleby what he’d learned about himself through his recovery, he told me that he’s focused on his “emotional growth” without the presence of drugs in his life. “I’m still learning who I am,” he told me. “When you start doing drugs at age 21, that’s when you stop the growth process. Sometimes, I feel like I’m 21 again, even though I’m 42. I’m growing now.”

Today, Eleby will start a full-time job at a bottling warehouse owned by CKS Packaging, where he’s expected to make at least $12 an hour, according to Phil Hunter, executive director of Georgia Works, who helped secure the position. As Eleby has achieved more stability in his life, he has started to check off those goals. He opened a bank account. And he started saving for an apartment of his own. His lawyers have raised $2,500 to purchase Eleby a 1994 Lexus, in hopes of shortening his commute, and are continuing to ask for donations to get him an apartment.

After the graduation ceremony ended, Eleby pulled something out of his wallet and handed it to me. It was his driver’s license. For him, it was more than just see a piece of plastic with his address on it. It was a reminder of how far he’d come, and how far he could go.

For sheriffs, healthcare for inmates can be a burden. For one doctor, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime.


An illustration of Doctor Carlo Musso of CorrectHealth

This story is part of a collaboration between Atlanta magazine and the Telegraph in Macon. Blau’s reporting was supported by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Margaret Pfohl and Jade Abdul-Malik contributed reporting.

The lives of doctors often revolve around their patients. On a brisk week in early December 2014, Carlo Musso was no exception.

On Tuesday, he headed south on Interstate 75 beyond the edges of Atlanta’s sprawl. Not far past where the city fades to country, he pulled off the highway and drove toward the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson. There, beyond the razor wire and sentry towers, a single patient awaited him. Robert Wayne Holsey, a 49-year-old inmate, had just a few hours left to live. Nineteen years earlier, Holsey had killed a sheriff’s deputy after a robbery at a convenience store outside Milledgeville. Now Holsey’s long fight for a reprieve was nearly over. Georgia law required a doctor to oversee his execution. That doctor would be Musso.

What followed that evening resembled a routine medical procedure. A nurse checked Holsey’s veins and set a line. As a lethal dose of pentobarbital was pumped into Holsey’s body, Musso monitored the man’s heartbeat on the electrocardiogram. Holsey’s eyes closed. He drew one last breath. At 10:51 p.m., Musso declared Holsey dead, filled out the death certificate, and headed back to Atlanta.

Two days later, Musso sat inside a Vinings law firm where he faced questions about the death of another man. In 2010, Michael Dooling Jr., a 42-year-old painter, had been booked in the Henry County Jail for a probation violation. Dooling was a smoker who had survived a heart attack and stroke. The jail had a constitutional responsibility to provide medical treatment to him, as American jails do to all inmates. Jail records show that, not long after he was booked, Dooling informed a physician’s assistant that his doctor recently had told him he needed a pacemaker. But then, a month into his incarceration, Dooling suffered a heart attack and died. His parents sued the jail, as well as CorrectHealth, the private company that treated Henry County inmates. The federal lawsuit also named Musso, CorrectHealth’s founder and president. The lawsuit alleged that his company had failed to provide Dooling with both life-saving surgery and his full set of medications.

By this time in late 2014, the company Musso had started in 2000 had grown exponentially, and was now overseeing care for 15,000 inmates at 40 correctional facilities across four states. Lawsuits like Dooling’s were not unusual. In fact, since Musso became a jail doctor, he and the companies he’d created for each jail had all together been sued at least 90 times. But in all those lawsuits, CorrectHealth had never lost in court. And they wouldn’t lose this one. (A judge would ultimately dismiss the suit, ruling that Dooling’s parents didn’t show enough evidence that their son’s constitutional rights were violated.) Nor would they lose the lawsuit stemming from the death, one day after Musso’s deposition, of yet another man, Demetrie Jones, a Cherokee County jail inmate who also was behind bars on a probation violation. Jones had HIV and had been diagnosed as bipolar, but CorrectHealth medical staff had ruled him fit to join the jail population, though he was still monitored by medical staff. On his second day, Jones complained he was having trouble breathing. On the third, a CorrectHealth doctor suspected Jones had pneumonia but didn’t immediately send him to the hospital. By the next morning, he was dead.

CorrectHealth’s litigious history is emblematic of the profound challenges that come with treating inmates. Within the nation’s healthcare system, few populations are as vulnerable or complex as those behind bars, who are at the nexus of competing priorities. On the one hand, they are entitled to healthcare funded largely by taxpayers, but on the other, that same healthcare is being farmed out to private companies, who are incentivized to maximize profits. In some ways, Musso is a pioneer, not just recognizing the dysfunction of the system, but offering an answer to a fundamental problem that vexes county sheriffs: How do we provide quality care on the lowest possible budget?

What started as a simple curiosity became the business opportunity of a lifetime. At 40, Musso traded in the stability and safety of a hospital career to care for patients few wanted to treat. In doing so, he engineered an unlikely reinvention from an unremarkable physician into one of the South’s most influential correctional doctors. This improbable second act would enrich Musso—since 2000 his companies have secured more than $360 million in government contracts—and offer a textbook example of how to build and grow influence through political lobbying, philanthropic donations, and old-fashioned personal networking. His contacts even led him to become a doctor on site for executions, and to open an assisted living facility to treat aging parolees. But the steady rise of his medical empire has undoubtedly benefited from the lax oversight by the very governments that hire him.

“I have no issue with the medical care [our inmates] receive,” says Janis Mangum, the sheriff of Jackson County, Georgia, which runs one of the more than 45 detention facilities where CorrectHealth provides healthcare to inmates. “I’ve never had a problem.”

Every year more than 10 million people are booked into America’s 3,160 jails. Incarceration is all about removing and restricting rights, but it does grant one unconditionally: healthcare. For most of our nation’s existence, this protection did not exist. In November 1973, a Texas prisoner named J.W. Gamble was injured when a 600-pound cotton bale fell onto him. He filed a handwritten lawsuit, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost. But future inmates won: Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that any jailer who showed “deliberate indifference” to an inmate’s serious medical need violated his constitutional rights. Further cases clarified that inmates should receive “adequate” care that’s “reasonably commensurate with modern medical science.” But the notion of what’s “adequate” remains a fungible concept, prone to the whims of shifting budgets and moral priorities. What, for example, constitutes adequate care for an overweight inmate with hypertension and diabetes? What about a headache? A bad cold? Against the societal backdrop of an ever-growing indifference to the plight of the accused and the convicted, sheriffs, jailers, and wardens have been content to let private companies determine the answer.

When Stanley Tuggle became Clayton County’s sheriff in 1996, he struggled with what is, in effect, an unfunded mandate. Three main options existed: contract with local doctors, hire them outright, or partner with a hospital. But as America’s jail population doubled between 1984 and 1996, and as finding enough jail doctors became more difficult, for-profit correctional healthcare providers stepped in. Tuggle decided to give one a try, but grew dissatisfied with the company’s heavy use of “rent-a-docs”—subcontracted general practitioners who, he felt, lacked deep knowledge of his jail’s inner-workings.

One day in the late 1990s, while checking in on a sick inmate at Clayton General Hospital, Tuggle bumped into Musso, a young emergency room physician who lived in Jonesboro. Many of his ER patients—including people who experienced homelessness or used drugs—Tuggle also saw in his jail. When Tuggle brought up his healthcare provider problems, Musso expressed interest in jail medicine. “I told him he was nuts,” Tuggle says. “Why get into medical care in a corrections setting when you’re working in a hospital?” Musso had never before practiced medicine behind bars but understood the importance of it—as a boy, he’d watched his father, a doctor, treat inmates. So, when Musso persisted, Tuggle suggested he submit a bid.

After losing the first bid, Musso tailored his proposal to one of Tuggle’s priorities, Tuggle recalls. “I wanted good healthcare service, but I wanted it within my facility,” Tuggle says. “He built his healthcare services around the idea of doing everything in-house.” In October 2000—four months after forming Georgia Correctional Health, LLC (GCH)—Musso became Clayton’s jail medical provider. Initially, Musso did a little bit of everything: hiring staff, establishing treatment protocols, purchasing medical equipment, and ordering prescription drugs. He also treated inmates, who typically face high rates of chronic diseases like hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and addiction. Though the average jail inmate is locked up for just 25 days, offering a brief window for medical intervention, Musso felt he could “make a tremendous impact on people and on public health,” he told the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006. “I loved it.”

When Clayton built a bigger jail, Tuggle says, Musso helped map out a new infirmary that would bring more medical services such as dental and mental healthcare in-house. Musso even found a way to move dialysis services to the jail, eliminating the need for deputies to transport patients out of the facility three times each week. Soon, Musso used his Clayton jail experience as inspiration for pitching other counties on his company’s services. His sales proposals would tout his company’s expertise at “cutting costs all while improving the quality and efficiency of healthcare delivery” inside jails. Indeed, one of the benefits of privatization is that it brings costs down, thanks to economies of scale. Private companies not only offer specialized care at a lower cost by spreading overhead across multiple jails, they also purchase multimillion-dollar insurance plans that allow sheriffs to offload some legal risk. But lax federal and state oversight, along with the lack of local funding, creates an incentive to skimp on healthcare, according to David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Accrediting groups like the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the Medical Association of Georgia have drafted guidelines designed to improve healthcare delivery for inmates and prisoners. But few—including roughly a quarter of the jails working with CorrectHealth—are accredited. Nor, unlike most hospitals, are they required to be.

“[A death-penalty] patient is no different from a patient dying of cancer—except his cancer is a court order.”

“Jails and prisons officials want to believe that for an unbelievable low price they can get high-quality healthcare,” says Dr. Owen Murray, vice president of the University of Texas-Medical Branch’s correctional managed care program. “It’s not like any of these companies are so innovative that they can bring substantial cost savings. There are fixed costs: staffing, drugs, and levels of off-site hospitalization.”

In a written statement to Atlanta magazine, Musso said a physician-owned company is less likely to “put profits over clinical care” than is a corporation run by “number-crunching” businesspeople. “Our ultimate decision point isn’t ‘What makes the most profit?’ It’s ‘What’s best for the patient?’” Musso touted an early success—helping Tuggle lower the number of costly ER visits, though Musso did not offer supporting data. Tuggle, for his part, appreciated Musso’s work enough to refer GCH to other sheriffs, such as Jeff Wigington of Rockdale County. By 2002, Musso had secured contracts with three more jails—including Wigington’s. Musso had moved almost entirely away from hospital work, focusing on sheriffs, whose support he needed to keep growing his young company.

In 2003, Musso received a phone call from a state Department of Corrections official whom he has not named publicly. Would Musso oversee Georgia’s lethal injections? the official asked. Musso was uncertain. As a doctor, Musso had been taught to do “no harm” to patients and, as he explains in the 2017 documentary The Sandman, he saw executions as arbitrary, expensive, and unnecessary. But Musso was also curious, and asked to visit death row to witness an execution.

The experience left him “incredibly sad,” he told the New England Journal of Medicine. He recalled feeling powerless to comfort the condemned man. Later, Musso read the position of the American Medical Association, which stated a physician “should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.” But to do nothing, Musso ultimately reasoned, was like abandoning a terminally ill patient.

“When we have a patient who can no longer survive his illness, we as physicians must ensure he has comfort,” Musso told the New England Journal of Medicine. “[A death-penalty] patient is no different from a patient dying of cancer—except his cancer is a court order.” Having a death-row doctor, he felt, would ensure that someone like Robert Wayne Holsey received what Musso called a “painless” death instead of a tortured one, as had occurred in other states, where botched lethal injections had caused inmates to experience convulsions, spasms, and gasp for air.

Musso’s involvement was perfectly legal, though it should have remained secret under state law. But because activists had outed past death-row doctors, Musso was up-front about his role—a job that paid $18,000 per execution to a team of providers that operated under Rainbow Medical Associates, another one of his companies. (Musso donated his portion to a children’s shelter.) Protesters gathered outside his house, challenged his medical license, and asked the AMA to revoke his membership. At times, he conceded in interviews, his role went against his basic reflexes as an emergency physician to prolong life. But he made no apologies.

Any backlash over Musso’s death penalty work did not impede GCH’s growth. Medical ethicist Dominic Sisti says that Musso showed a “dual loyalty”—a willingness to serve the needs of inmates and their jailer. Between 2002 and 2006, Musso grew the company’s portfolio from four jail contracts to more than 20—including seven in metro Atlanta’s 29-county region—as well as several state prisons.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Musso became the medical provider at Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, a large jail south of New Orleans. The out-of-state expansion effectively triggered a companywide restructuring that positioned it for more clients and more growth. He hired an in-house lawyer in part to shield the company from legal risk and trained his staff on ways to avoid litigation, according to company records. Musso also folded GCH under CorrectHealth Companies, an umbrella organization that included individual companies for every detention facility, a tactic used to distribute risk. As he shifted away from personally treating patients, Musso spent more of his time tracking inmate medical problems, managing off-site treatment costs, and finding new clients.

Between 2006 and 2016, CorrectHealth doubled its number of jail contracts to oversee medical care in more than 40 facilities, becoming the largest private correctional medical provider in Georgia and Louisiana, while expanding into Kentucky and Tennessee. By then, the correctional medicine sector had become a $12 billion industry. National companies swallowed regional competitors, morphing into publicly traded firms like Corizon and Wellpath, which now each oversee hundreds of jails. As more counties outsourced jail medical services—most of Georgia’s 159 counties now rely on for-profit companies—Musso extended a personal touch. When sheriffs had concerns, Musso answered directly. When they participated in charity golf outings, his company would buy a foursome.

As much as sheriffs liked Musso, larger companies threatened to underbid CorrectHealth. Like every company in the sector, CorrectHealth faced a dilemma posed by lax government oversight: Spend too much on patient care, risk losing a bid; spend too little, then corners get cut, and the risk of litigation is increased. “Below a certain price point, you won’t have the resources you need to serve the patient,” Musso said in his written response to Atlanta magazine, “and we won’t do that.” Consider something as fundamental as staffing. With no minimum standards, the ratio of medical personnel to inmates is essentially dictated by cost. But counties typically offer fixed-price contracts, which create an incentive to understaff, says Savannah attorney William Claiborne. At the 100-bed McDuffie County Jail, officials pay for just one full-time nurse, along with a doctor who offers one hour of medical care each week. For larger clients like the Chatham County Detention Center, CorrectHealth assigns a doctor or nurse practitioners to the jail, but staffs it mostly with licensed practical nurses.

“Every dollar you don’t spend, you keep,” Claiborne says. “Until you remove that incentive, you’re going to have denials of care. It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature.”

Most counties that work with CorrectHealth do not insist on compliance measures such as fines for understaffing or missed intake screenings. Nearly all of the jail medical contracts do, however, require CorrectHealth to maintain “complete and accurate” patient records and to make available records pertaining to the delivery of healthcare. In interviews with 12 sheriffs and jailers that work with CorrectHealth, most said they were hands-off when it comes to analyzing their medical provider’s performance and only intervened when a serious complaint came across their desks. Jeff Alvarez, chief medical officer at NaphCare, a private jail medical company, says he relies on monthly reports to determine treatment quality within jails and to fix problems. “If you don’t have reports, you can’t judge the care,” he says. “It’s very hard to have oversight.”

CorrectHealth’s publicly available reports do not always show diligent tracking of the treatment it provides to inmates. Monthly reports spanning two years from 27 of 45 facilities in Georgia and Louisiana contained blank spreadsheet cells that should have contained data of how many patients received treatment for chronic care, mental health, dental work, and other specialty care. Asked why the reports were incomplete, Musso wrote that they were simply outdated and that “there’s no missing data.” The company declined subsequent requests to disclose updated data, saying that information was privileged. Without this kind of information, Brenda Twitty still has questions about the death her son, Corey Martin. Martin died of an accidental drug overdose in March 2018, five days after charges against him were dropped and he was released from the Forsyth County Detention Center. Martin, a cancer survivor, had been diagnosed with a new tumor but told his mother that CorrectHealth had not immediately provided him with oncology treatment. Since Martin’s death, Twitty has asked for his individual medical records, but the jail denied her requests, citing privacy laws. As for the publicly-available monthly reports, data on how often inmates were provided with specialty care is missing for six of the seven months Martin was in jail. (Musso declined to answer questions about any individual case.)

Between 2014 and 2018, CorrectHealth was sued at least 79 times by inmates and inmates’ families over allegations of untreated pain to denial of care that, the plaintiffs argued, may have saved lives. Of course, all medical providers face lawsuits, whether they’re hospitals, clinics, or private practices. For Musso, getting sued is just “part of being in this business,” he said in his written statement. But over the five years ending in 2018, CorrectHealth was sued at a rate, adjusting for the number of inmates they each serve, roughly twice that of its largest competitor, Wellpath, according to an Atlanta magazine analysis of CorrectHealth’s lawsuits. (The rate was compared against a similar analysis of Wellpath’s lawsuits from a recent New Yorker investigation.) Musso says the comparison “isn’t apples to apples” because his larger competitors tend to serve a higher percentage of prisons.

Former patients, family members, or lawyers involved in 14 separate lawsuits allege delays or denials of care. Timothy Byrom says surgery delays meant another doctor had to rebreak bones in Byrom’s hand and fuse them to his wrist. Macon resident Ernest Henderson says that delayed skin infection treatment led to gangrene, which forced doctors to amputate a portion of his foot. When a shower overflowed in the Walton County Jail in 2017, Monroe resident Jessica Wooten slipped and fell, landing on her hip. A nurse provided muscle relaxers, but Wooten was denied additional requests for treatment, according to Wooten’s lawyer. Nearly three weeks after the fall, with Wooten threatening a lawsuit, CorrectHealth sent Wooten to a hospital, where x-rays confirmed a hip fracture. Wooten had four surgeries—the first in custody and the rest after her release. Overall, Wooten says, she incurred $500,000 in medical bills, forcing her to declare bankruptcy. Wooten’s lawyer has sent an ante litem notice, which informs potential defendants of a forthcoming lawsuit, to Walton County.

“My only regret is that I didn’t take CorrectHealth to court. The owner of the company should be held accountable.”

At least 22 of the more than 160 lawsuits against Musso’s companies involved wrongful death claims. McDonough pastor Doug Drucker said his daughter, Wendy, was not allowed to bring her antipsychotic medications into the Henry County jail—a fact supported by jail records. The 2014 lawsuit alleged that Wendy Drucker suffered three days of convulsions and a 104-degree fever in custody before being hospitalized. She suffered cardiac arrest at the hospital. According to the lawsuit, she died from neuroleptic malignant syndrome, a life-threatening condition that is treatable if detected early enough. “If she went to the hospital on time, they could’ve administered a drug to save her life,” Drucker says. “They didn’t want to spend the money.” (The Drucker family settled the case for an undisclosed sum.)

Joshua Belcher, a 32-year-old musician, tried to hang himself in August 2017 inside a cell at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Louisiana. Belcher was placed on suicide watch while he detoxed off heroin, meth, and alcohol. Two days later, Belcher told a social worker he no longer was having suicidal thoughts and was hopeful for the future. He was “feeling good.” The social worker, an employee of CorrectHealth, took Belcher off suicide watch. Two days later, Belcher ended his life by hanging himself with a sheet. His parents later learned their son was one of three people to commit suicide in a two-month period at the jail, which had just one psychiatrist present for four hours each week for a facility that on average that year held 950 inmates. The Belcher family is suing CorrectHealth in federal court in Louisiana, alleging a “policy of failing to prevent inmates who exhibit signs of suicide risk from committing suicide.”

Musso in the mid-2000s adopted a strategy to “aggressively” deflect legal risk, according to company documents. Attorneys have pursued protective orders to prevent proprietary company information from getting released during litigation and persuaded judges to seal records. Lawyers have sat in on mortality review meetings—allowing CorrectHealth to claim attorney-client privilege over sensitive records—and drafted affidavits for sheriff’s deputies who are codefendants in lawsuits. That broader strategy, too, doubled as a sales point: CorrectHealth last year boasted in a proposal for Muscogee County’s business that the company has “NEVER had a verdict rendered against it.” Musso won the five-year, $3.4 million contract.

Another family member who settled, Wanda Turner, was the mother of Demetrie Jones, the Cherokee County inmate who died on December 13, 2014. That morning at 4:50 a.m., 35 minutes after he first collapsed, a CorrectHealth nurse peered into Jones’s cell, surveillance footage shows. After five seconds, she walked away. Eleven minutes later, she again peered inside his cell, but walked away. It wasn’t until a shift change, more than 90 minutes after Jones collapsed, that the same nurse entered Jones’s cell. By then, it was too late. The autopsy cited acute pneumonia related to AIDS as the cause of death. Turner’s lawyers eventually deposed CorrectHealth providers and obtained video footage of her son’s final moments. But instead of pursuing a trial, Turner took her lawyer’s advice and settled with CorrectHealth for an undisclosed sum—a choice she second-guesses to this day. “My only regret is that I didn’t take CorrectHealth to court,” Turner said. “The owner of the company should be held accountable.”

Some plaintiff attorneys, who front legal costs in exchange for a portion of any award, say two factors push even the strongest jail medical cases toward settlement. First, lawyers must reckon with the fact that, should their case go to trial, jurors are likely to be unsympathetic to their clients, given their criminal records. And the burden of proof for a deliberate indifference claim in federal court is higher than malpractice lawsuits, which are typically filed in state court and focus on whether a practitioner deviated from the standard of care. (Claiborne says judges toss state suits because jail contractors, under Georgia law, can claim sovereign immunity, a centuries-old doctrine that prevents governments from being sued without their consent.) During a recent jail medical conference presentation, Alison Currie, an attorney who represented CorrectHealth in the Turner case, estimated that correctional facilities and their medical providers lose in court fewer than 1 percent of cases, in part because many inmates file lawsuits alleging denials of minor treatment. To drive this point home, she quoted a judge’s past ruling that involved Illinois inmates who said they were denied care for the sniffles and a headache: “The constitution is not a charter of protection for hypochondriacs.”

Sometime around 2016, Musso phased out of his role supervising lethal injections. Leaving behind lethal injections allowed Musso to focus on a new chapter of his medical empire: CorrectLife, a subsidiary of CorrectHealth Companies, builds and operates assisted-living facilities designed to serve former prisoners as they age. The first of these is the Bostick Nursing Center, a 280-bed facility in Milledgeville. Musso has said he intends to open additional locations in other states—including one currently in the works in Missouri.

CorrectLife was borne out of Musso’s experience with elderly patients. Even though Georgia’s state prison population is declining, the number of prisoners 60 and older has increased 20 percent since 2011. As those inmates were released, few assisted-living facilities opened their doors, in part because they saw them as a threat. Frail prisoners nearing the end of their sentences often could not be granted early release by the parole board until they had a bed secured. Musso believed that CorrectLife could save taxpayers money, while also providing more dignified care to aging prisoners.

For years Musso had eyed the Bostick Prison, a shuttered 700-bed state prison, as the site of his first CorrectLife facility. Between 2011 and 2012, state records show, Musso discussed with corrections officials a potential deal: The state would invest $8 million in renovations, and Musso would lease the building for $580,000 per month. The following year, after dropping its renovation plans, state officials placed the 16-acre property on the market. Musso, the lone bidder, purchased it for $50,000—half of its appraised value of $100,000. Musso demolished the prison. In its place, he built a $20 million, 110,000-square-foot facility. At the 2014 groundbreaking, Musso was joined by then Governor Nathan Deal and state Senator Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson.

Deal and Jones were among the many elected officials who received campaign contributions from Musso and his companies. Through personal and corporate contributions, Musso has given more than $470,000 to political causes since 2006. (Deal, through a representative, told Atlanta magazine that Musso’s contributions of nearly $20,000 did not influence his administration’s decisions. Jones did not respond to requests for comment.) Musso has not only donated to politicians; he’s hired them. He employed Georgia state Senator Lester Jackson, a Savannah Democrat, as his dental director. And he’s contracted with Ron Stephens, a Republican state lawmaker, to provide pharmacy services at the Chatham County Detention Center. (Jackson and Stephens did not respond to requests for comment.) Between 2012 and 2019, Musso, personally and through his company, has donated more than $27,000 to individual Georgia sheriffs that are his clients.

CorrectHealth also contributed at least $250,000 to the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. (Musso says his sponsorship money went to the Georgia Sheriffs’ Youth Homes, which provide shelter for abused and neglected children.) The 2015 GSA annual report features a photo of two sheriffs handing Musso an award for his “continued generosity of giving.” One of those sheriffs was Donnie Craig, who in 2017 hired CorrectHealth to treat inmates at his jail in Pickens County. The annual contract is worth more than $250,000.

No example better illustrates the extent of Musso’s influence than what happened in Chatham County. In 2016, after seven Chatham County jail inmates died under Corizon’s care, the county hired CorrectHealth. The contract, worth $7 million annually, required the company to be overseen by Steve Rosenberg, an independent jail monitor. CorrectHealth’s tenure got off to a rocky start that included missed intake screenings and insufficient staffing—which led Rosenberg to recommend to county officials that they levy a $5.2 million fine against CorrectHealth.

CorrectHealth wanted Rosenberg gone, claiming in a letter to Chatham’s county manager that he was “bullying” one of the CorrectHealth nurses to tell Musso to provide higher-quality care. So, evidently, did newly-elected sheriff John Wilcher. The veteran lawman had cut off Rosenberg’s jail access because the monitor wouldn’t report findings directly to the sheriff. “I can’t fix something if I don’t know it’s broke,” Wilcher complained to the county officials who hired Rosenberg. Wilcher strongly supported Musso, one of the sheriff’s largest donors. In October 2017, when Chatham commissioners unexpectedly ended CorrectHealth’s contract, Wilcher accused the county manager of “trying to micromanage” his jail. He also questioned Rosenberg’s judgment. “I don’t need nobody to oversee me,” Wilcher told county officials.

Under pressure to avoid a lapse in medical coverage at the jail, Chatham commissioners reversed course, offering CorrectHealth a temporary extension. Leveraging the county’s predicament—switching companies would create a lapse in providers—CorrectHealth agreed to stay so long as Rosenberg no longer provided oversight. The county never collected the $5.2 million penalty that Rosenberg suggested. CorrectHealth last year won a three-year, $22 million contract, which no longer penalizes the company for missed screenings. Wilcher hired a new monitor who reports directly to the sheriff’s office.

Not all sheriffs have been happy with CorrectHealth’s services. In 2011, DeKalb County fired CorrectHealth, claiming its employees didn’t always show up for work, causing delays to patient care, and asserting that there was too much nursing turnover. In 2015, seven months after Demetrie Jones’s death, Cherokee County bid out its jail medical contract. (The Cherokee County sheriff’s office declined to comment on the cause for the switch.) In 2017, Clarke County rebid its contract after CorrectHealth’s dentist, a subcontractor, failed to come in as scheduled, and Sheriff Ira Edwards wrote in an email that he felt that Musso didn’t adequately address the problem. Edwards ultimately rebid the contract. “This is a great example of why it is best at times to go with the highest bid,” Edwards emailed one of his deputies.

In 2012, a decade into Rockdale County Jail’s contract with CorrectHealth and after five years without a single in-custody death, three inmates died there. One, who had complained of severe abdominal pain, was prescribed a laxative. The inmate, whose name was Albert Wilder, later began vomiting blood and was placed in observation but wasn’t given x-rays or any other diagnostic tests. He went into sepsis and died from a perforated ulcer. Wilder’s death was preceded, seven months earlier, by the death of Thomas Colardo. The 66-year-old Conyers resident, who had a platelet disorder that prevented his blood from clotting properly, started bleeding from his nose and rectum. Five days after the bleeding began, a physician ordered a nurse to draw blood, but the procedure didn’t occur for another five hours. Colardo was finally taken to the hospital, where he fell into a coma and died. In a deposition, Sheriff Wigington said that he called Musso after learning of Colardo’s death, and told the doctor: “I hope you all are looking into this.”

“[We’re] looking into everything,” Musso replied, according to Wigington’s deposition.

The following year, Wigington lost his reelection bid to current sheriff Eric Levitt, who replaced CorrectHealth. At the time, one of Levitt’s deputies told the county commission that the change was needed because “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Wigington defended CorrectHealth’s performance as the jail’s medical provider. Wigington pointed to another inmate that died under the care of Correct Care Solutions, which replaced CorrectHealth. A civil grand jury blamed the man’s death on Correct Care, as well as on the jail staff.

“Every company has issues at some point,” Wigington said. “They changed providers, and they had new deaths.”

Six years after CorrectHealth was replaced, Rockdale is locked in a costly legal battle with Colardo’s attorneys. As his companies closed out one of their most successful years—they earned more than $45 million in jail contracts in 2019, and a second CorrectLife facility is in the planning stages—Musso says he wants to look ahead, declining to revisit the circumstances that led to lost contracts or lingering wrongful death lawsuits. “It’s part of being in this business,” Musso wrote, “even when you provide excellent care every day.”

This article appears in our January 2020 issue.

An Atlanta cop, truck driver, and sleep specialist tell us how to cope with working all night

Up all night: Atlanta Police Officer Son Tran

Early one Sunday morning, as Midtown’s bartenders announce last call, Son Tran listens closely to his scanner. The 27-year-old officer has just finished filing a police report—a Washington Redskins player visiting Atlanta totaled his green Corvette. Before a 911 dispatcher sends another call his way, Tran hustles into the 24-hour Chevron station on Ponce de Leon Avenue and grabs the tallest sugar-free energy drink he can find.

A Vietnamese immigrant with boyish cheeks and wire-rimmed glasses, Tran first got assigned to the Morning Watch—a rite of passage for rookie officers—in 2018. Five days a week, he clocks into APD’s CNN Center precinct just before 11 p.m. For the next eight hours, he patrols downtown and Midtown streets, doing everything from catching drunk drivers to hauling people to the Atlanta jail for disorderly conduct, public urination, or other city code violations. (Plus, untold hours of paperwork.) As months have passed, Tran has settled into a steady rhythm on the overnight shift. Except for one thing: sleep. He once slept a solid eight hours a night, back at his last job as an archive assistant. Now, he’s lucky to get five.

Up all night: Atlanta Police Officer Son Tran

“The one thing I hate? That I rely so much on energy drinks,” Tran told me, sipping his Monster before speeding off to a criminal trespass call a few blocks away from Piedmont Park.

By the time we arrive, it’s three o’clock, a time at which only 3 percent of America’s workforce is, in fact, working. In Atlanta, this relatively small army of night owls—firefighters and factory workers, security guards and gas-station clerks, doctors and truck drivers—keeps the city running smoothly. Once the sun rises and the rest of us head to work, thousands of weary workers head home—or, in some cases, to yet another job. For night workers like Tran, though, that simple reversal of a work schedule can come with great sacrifice to health and lifestyle.

“We’re not designed to physically work overnight. There’s no real, ideal night-shift schedule.”

“The first few weeks, I didn’t think I could make it,” says Bill West, a 55-year-old overnight trucker. At 6 p.m., three days a week, he pulls his 18-wheeler onto Moreland Avenue, the start of a 10-hour trek to Little Rock, Arkansas. Wary of stimulants, he began by blasting AC/DC or calling other truckers on the road. As dawn approached, however, he struggled to stay alert. Over time, things got better. If he started yawning, he’d pull over for a brief nap. After his route, he embraced blackout curtains to block the sun. “I’ve never felt fully rested,” West says. “You can learn to live with it, but it’s unnatural.”

Working the night shift can feel like constant jet lag. H. Elliott Albers, director of Georgia State’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, says switching to nights can disrupt a tiny part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus that controls the body’s circadian clock. In the short term, workers become disoriented or lose cognitive abilities. Chronic sleep deprivation, left untreated, can increase the risk of hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. People who work overnights can even develop Shift Work Sleep Disorder, a chronic condition recognized by the National Sleep Foundation that is linked to cancer, depression, and even premature death.

Once an overnight nurse, Ann E. Rogers has spent her career researching the effects of insufficient sleep in the workplace. She says night-shift workers are more prone to occupational injuries—from drivers falling asleep at the wheel to nurses sticking themselves with needles. “We’re not designed to physically work overnight,” says Rogers, now a nursing professor at Emory University. “There’s no real, ideal night-shift schedule.”

“I’ve never felt fully rested. You can learn to live with it, but it’s unnatural.”

While some employers have found workarounds—medical providers in Perth, Australia, 12 hours ahead of Atlanta, now see some Emory ICU patients via teleconferencing software and equipment—cities can’t function without the night shift. It’s that very shift that allows places like Atlanta, that strive to be 24/7 cities, to never sleep. Talk to night-shift workers, and you’ll hear a wide range of tactics for both staying up on shift and getting to sleep afterward. Rogers, for her part, suggests midshift naps. Tran’s secret: a $4,000 mattress that has 10,000 microsprings.

“Melatonin can get you back on track,” says Dr. Michael Lacey, a medical director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine. “We also use light boxes”—patients sit next to a lightbulb-filled rectangular fixture at home after they wake up, which he says stimulates an area deep in the brain to trigger dopamine—“to lessen the shock of night shifts on the body.”

The best way to adapt to the night shift? Stick to the schedule, even on off-days, according to Albers. That’s easier said than done. Three years ago, when I worked as an overnight news writer for CNN, my work week started Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. and ended Thursdays at 6:30 a.m. I tried shifting my sleep schedule to call my parents, run errands, and maintain a social life. I tried everything from a sleeping mask to earplugs to melatonin. But none of that could offset my erratic sleeping pattern. Soon, I grew unhappy, ate poorly, and felt fatigued. I quit after five months.

Up all night: Atlanta Police Officer Son Tran
Atlanta Police Officer Son Tran started working overnight shifts in downtown—a proving ground for many rookies—last year.

Photograph by Audra Melton

Not everyone can do the same. That’s the case for Tran, who’ll work nights for the foreseeable future. Later that Sunday, not long after the sun rises, Tran heads from the CNN Center to his home in Morrow. He chats with his wife about his shift and decompresses by watching funny YouTube videos. An hour later, he closes the blinds, dons his sleeping mask, and shuts his eyes on his dream mattress. Another Morning Watch is fast approaching.

This article appears in our September 2019 issue.

Georgia pecan farmers have thrived for a century. After Hurricane Michael, they’re unsure if they’ll survive another generation.

Georgia pecan farmers
Robert Cohen, who’s been harvesting pecans since he was a boy, kneels next to the wreckage of one of his trees.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Late in the afternoon, if Robert Cohen was sitting on his patio, he could glimpse the shadows of pecan trees. As a young boy, he had learned to shake nuts from their long, elegant limbs. As a man, he had passed down the secrets of their harvest to his two sons, a tradition so sacred that it took precedence over high school football. Eventually, his sons took what he taught them and planted even larger groves. Now, at 75, the farmer rocked in his chair, thinking about the pecan trees and wondering how many more Cohens might flourish under the shadows of giants.

On October 10, 2018, as the afternoon sky darkened, Cohen lost sight of the shadows. A few hours earlier, Hurricane Michael had crashed into the Florida coast, nearly 100 miles away from where he lived in Brinson, as far southwest as one can go in Georgia. In the days before Michael, one meteorologist had forecasted gusts of 50 miles per hour reaching the area. Another predicted winds twice as strong. Cohen had lived in this 200-person town since World War II. Triple-digit hurricane winds? In Brinson? It seemed impossible. He didn’t evacuate. Nor did he board up the windows of his two-story home. Nor did he worry about his pecans, just 10 days shy of harvest. Worrying couldn’t change the weather.

After five decades of selling farm supplies, years in which he grew pecans on the side, Cohen wanted nothing but to tend pecan trees for the rest of his days. As the Category 4 hurricane barreled from Panama City Beach to Brinson, he sat outside on his rocking chair for as long he could, unaware of its trail of death and destruction. He watched the pecan shucks get ripped from their limbs. Then, the limbs snapped off the trees. Finally, the winds uprooted the trees as effortlessly as a gardener pulling carrots from the ground. Around 5:45 p.m., Cohen sought shelter inside with his wife in their den. The walls of the house shook. The winds howled like a runaway train. All he could do was pray that some of the trees would be spared.

When Cohen emerged the next morning, fallen trees had rendered the roads impassable. A large limb rested beside his unharmed pickup—a reminder that the damage, as bad as it was, could’ve been worse. After checking in with his sons, he and his wife steered an off-road vehicle through the debris, looking for a way into his main orchard. They wove the cart through the mess for about a mile down the road. Then, they spotted an opening. He slowed the cart, hoping not to crush pecans that might still be saved.

Once Cohen reached the clearing, he saw rows of baby pecan trees still standing. Planted in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, they were still too young to bear nuts. It was a small victory. When he looked into the distance, his oldest trees—some more than a century old—lay lifeless on the ground. His wife started crying. If crying could do any good, he would have shed tears, too. Tears couldn’t get those roots back into the red clay. Tears couldn’t deliver his dream of a peaceful retirement. The Cohens wouldn’t just be wiped out this harvest. They would lose the harvests of many seasons to come.

Georgia pecan farmers
Roy Goodson inspects pecans after Hurricane Michael, the worst storm he’s experienced in 50 years as a farmer.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

In the days after Michael tore through Georgia, causing nearly $2.5 billion in damage, state agriculture commissioner Gary Black said the losses were “our worst dreams being realized.” Crops of all kinds—cotton, timber, and vegetables—suffered heavy damages. But of all the growers, pecan farmers were using the most apocalyptic language, comparing their ravaged orchards to a “war zone” and a “nuclear holocaust.”

Tifton horticulturist Lenny Wells, one of the state’s foremost pecan experts, summed up Michael’s devastation with stark numbers: 740,000 trees destroyed, 55 million pounds of nuts ruined, $560 million in anticipated economic losses. By Wells’s estimation, about half of the state’s crop was obliterated—and that’s after Hurricane Irma wiped out a third of it. But Wells stressed that the damage could not be measured solely in numbers.

“Some of these guys are growing pecans on trees that their great-grandfathers planted,” Wells said. “Their grandfathers planted trees. Their parents planted trees. [The trees are] like children to pecan growers.”

Damage to a generational crop, pecan farmer Bo Morey explained, has generational consequences. The 2018 crop was shaping up to be one of the best harvests his father, Tyron, had seen in half a century of farming. They had just started to shake nuts off some of their trees, mostly a variety that matured early enough to sell for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and had collected 2 percent of their total crop when Michael arrived. Within hours, they lost a quarter of their trees spread across 1,000 acres. At Bo Morey’s insistence, I climbed to the top of a massive red dumpster on the outskirts of their orchard. When I peered over the edge, I saw thousands of pounds of pecans piled inside. These nuts, which had started to blacken, were the first of many destined for the trash.

Morey described the options ahead: They could either bring in heavy machinery to clear the fallen trees—which would speed up the process but also crush nuts lining the orchard floor—or they could hire a small army of workers to clear the debris by hand, a slow, costly process that would leave pecans vulnerable to rotting. “Either which way,” he said, “we lose.”

“Last year, Georgia sold $300 million worth of pecans. I’d be surprised if we sold $100 million this year.”

The story of the Georgia pecan took root just after the Civil War, when a handful of farmers from Chatham to Chattooga counties experimented with growing the sweet, buttery nuts. Around the turn of the 20th century, real estate developers sold thousands of acres of pecan trees near Albany, marketing small farms that went for upward of $1,000 an acre. (A 1900 Atlanta Constitution article headlined “Georgia Pecans: Lots of Money in Them” was nationally syndicated.) President Jimmy Carter, best known for farming peanuts (technically a legume, not a nut), spent his childhood shaking pecans from the trees his mother grew on the family farm. As Georgia farmers embraced new techniques from processing to grafting—in which growers joined a bud with a rootstock to produce higher-yielding varieties that proved resistant to disease—they helped turn local pecans into a national phenomenon. In the 1930s, Georgia pecan pie recipes appeared in newspapers across the country. In 1948, the Georgia Pecan Growers Association convinced General Anthony Clement “Nuts” McAuliffe to shower pecans over Bastogne, Belgium, in commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge. Half a century later, the Georgia nut had grown so iconic that organizers for the 1996 Olympics crafted Muhammad Ali’s torch handle out of pecan wood. In 2015, Georgia farmers produced 37 percent of pecans grown in the U.S., a nation responsible for roughly half of the world’s production.

“We may have had the best pecan crop we ever had [in 2018],” Black told me. “You saw what could be. And now you see what’s not there. Last year, Georgia sold $300 million worth of pecans. I’d be surprised if we sold $100 million this year.”

Many agricultural crops that sustained major Hurricane Michael damage can be replanted next year so long as growers can withstand the short-term financial losses. Richard Merritt, a pecan grower in Weston, noted that nearly a decade must pass for new trees to fully mature. Pecan nurseries already had waiting lists before Michael. Given that Georgia lost a sixth of its total pecan trees in the storm, farmers are faced with a long road to recovery.

“We suffered losses much more devastating to Georgia than I anticipated,” said Jeffrey Dorfman, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia. “We literally don’t have enough new trees in nurseries for everybody to replant at once. Some are going to have to wait years.”

Georgia pecan farmers
Henry Ward Jr., a third-generation pecan farmer, will soon find out if this year’s crop is a total loss.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

At an orchard in Baconton, eight days after the storm, 53-year-old farmer Henry Ward Jr. was still waiting for power to be restored. As Ward carefully made his way past the fallen trees behind his double-wide, trying not to crush any nuts, he reached up to one of his younger trees to grab a green shuck that had yet to fully split open. He explained that the pecan variety inside the shuck, Cape Fear, typically opens later in the fall. Because so many were on the ground, still closed inside a shuck, they’ll be extremely difficult to open—though many might be salvageable. But he’s not supposed to touch the fallen ones that are scattered across the nearly 100 acres he farms. He was waiting on an insurance adjuster to tell him whether he should write off this year’s crop as a total loss.

“I’m at a standstill,” Ward said.

During the early 20th century, Ward’s grandfather was one of the first black farmers to plant pecan trees in southwest Georgia. Growing up, Ward had hoped to inherit them. But when he was 15, his father died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The estate split the land among various family members. His mother kept her plot of land, but the orchard remained divided. Ward spent decades reclaiming his heritage. He studied at a small agricultural college in Tifton and learned the trade from men like Frank Wetherbee, the first Georgia pecan farmer to irrigate an orchard. Ward worked full-time jobs outside of farming, including his current night-shift gig at a MillerCoors plant, to raise his three sons. In the early ’90s, he began tending to 60 pecan trees around his mother’s house. Over the years, he bought or rented nearly 100 acres of orchards. He had hoped to keep the tradition alive long enough to pass the business down to Henry III, his second-oldest, who’s taken an active interest in the orchards. A supervisor at a chicken plant, Henry III has helped his father sweep the orchard floors for the past four years. “If anything happens to him,” Henry III told me, “I can keep the farm going.”

“Some of these guys are growing pecans on trees that their great-grandfathers planted. Their grandfathers planted trees. Their parents planted trees. [The trees are] like children to pecan growers.”

In 2012, a tornado downed some of their trees. Michael was worse. Staring at a fallen tree his grandfather had planted, Ward knew that the hurricane had brought another level of destruction. He said it now will be difficult, if not impossible, to ever quit his factory job. Other small-time farmers who depended on pecans, he said, might have no choice but to sell their land.

He admitted that, at times, he’s reluctantly asked himself: Should I still be harvesting pecans? He’s considered diversifying into peaches, plums, or nectarines—but all those are grown from trees, too. After such moments of doubt, he remembers everything he lost after his father’s death, and the thought of leaving pecans behind fades fast. He’s now determined to fight the aftereffects of Michael.

“I’m hoping it won’t put me completely out of business,” Ward said, before adding: “I may have to downsize.”

Georgia pecan farmers
A pecan tree uprooted by Hurricane Michael underscores the challenges farmer Henry Ward Jr. faces.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

The view from the window of Brent Brinkley’s white pickup revealed pecan trees bent like contortionists. Michael’s eye passed about 30 miles east of his orchards in Pelham. One of his hardest-hit orchards is a 50-acre plot that had sustained major damage from Irma as well. He said he was thinking of “pushing up” the trees from that portion of his farm. “I’m not one to believe in fate,” he told me from behind the wheel, “but that’s a bad luck orchard.”

The president of Georgia’s largest pecan growers’ association, Brinkley said farmers recuperating from the trio of recent hurricanes—Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018—hope federal and state relief will save their businesses. But he believes another threat, the U.S.-China trade war, will complicate their long-term recovery. A former executive in the diaper business, Brinkley first tried his hand at pecan farming in the mid-2000s. As he tells it, there had never been a better time to become a Georgia pecan farmer: Chinese people were falling in love with pecans—cracking open shells the way Americans often do with peanuts—and quickly became one of the largest importers of the state’s nuts. As Chinese imports surged, the price of Georgia pecans doubled between 2005 and 2011, a rare economic bright spot during the Great Recession. Hoping to capitalize on the pecan boom, Brinkley expanded his holdings to 600 acres. He considered the farm a safer bet than the stock market for his retirement fund.

But his 600 acres, which cost $7,000 an acre to plant, no longer seem as safe an investment.

“The storm has made us consider: ‘Is this something we want to do?’ What if this happens again? I don’t want to think about it. But there’s a chance.”

Eric Cohen, one of Robert Cohen’s sons, also expanded his holdings from 45 acres to 1,400 acres during the same period. “The farming economy didn’t go down during the recession,” Cohen said. “We were rolling. We were booming.” The boom mostly continued through 2015, when China cut U.S. pecan tariffs from 24 percent to 10 percent. While Irma set some farmers back, promising news followed the storm: China again lowered the tariff, to 7 percent. However, in the first half of 2018, President Trump’s escalating trade war with China drove up pecan tariffs to 47 percent. Some Georgia farmers, who typically sold more than half their pecans to China, no longer saw offers from those buyers. Unlike soybean farmers, who received a $6 billion bailout to withstand the trade war, pecan growers were instead given the option to sell surplus crops to the federal government, which would distribute pecans to U.S. food banks.

But Wells, the Tifton pecan expert, has heard farmers express doubts about the effectiveness of those tariff relief efforts. While many still support Trump’s broader trade war, they see the tariff’s removal as the best form of relief following Michael. Most farmers with crop insurance will be compensated for a portion of their harvest, but they likely won’t get anything to offset losses beyond 2018. (Insurance brokers traditionally didn’t offer policies for trees. While tree insurance became available last year, not all pecan farmers are aware of it.)

Even with state lawmakers approving $470 million in hurricane relief during a rare special legislative session, Brinkley anticipates that some growers who financially overextended themselves during the latest pecan boom will file for bankruptcy. “We’ve got to have major help with this storm,” Cohen adds, “or else we’re completely out.”

Toward the end of our tour, I asked Brinkley if the frequency of hurricanes hitting Georgia made him worry about the future of pecan farming, considering how long it can take to replant. “We’ve never been hit so consistently,” he said. Many Georgia pecan farmers, largely supportive of conservative politicians, don’t acknowledge the link between the rash of stronger storms and climate change caused by human activity. At first, Brinkley demurred by calling the pattern one that’s “hard to wrap your head around.” He later said that the Trump administration should devote more resources to global-warming research efforts. “I’m not fully on the bandwagon yet,” he said, but the frequency of the storms “is making a believer out of me.”

Georgia pecan farmers
Three generations of the Goodson family consider the future of their livelihood.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Late one Thursday in October, Drew Goodson walked a few paces behind his grandfather, Roy, intently studying his reaction to a disaster unlike any he’d seen in nearly a half-century as a pecan farmer. Earlier that afternoon, the lanky 13-year-old had watched his grandfather fix a heavy piece of machinery to help clean up after Michael. Now, in the golden light before dusk, three generations of Goodsons stood together under the most resilient of the limbs.

When Drew’s father, David, first left Leesburg, Georgia, back in the mid-’90s, he had no desire to join the family business. Unlike Roy, David hated picking nuts and branches off the orchard floor. He wanted to preach the Lord’s word. With his father’s blessing, David went to college, studied scripture, and became a minister who served various Southern congregations. But as David grew older and became a father himself, he was pulled back home in 2010 to help Roy. David and his wife, Melody, created a line of products—pecan butter, pecan brittle, chocolate-coated pecans—that Drew now helps sell at farmers markets and festivals. Last spring, David brought Drew along to meet Governor Nathan Deal after winning a statewide contest for locally grown food products.

Ten miles north of Albany, Michael destroyed a fifth of the Goodsons’ pecan trees. As Drew stared down toward the fallen limbs, he tucked his hands into his jeans, hunching over slightly, just as his father does. David has been mindful of letting Drew find his own path and is well aware that fewer people are choosing farming as a profession. (The average age of a Georgia farmer is 60.) He’s had to occasionally pull Drew, who’s actively involved in swim club, away from extracurricular activities to help with harvests. The latest pecan boom—and the high demand and prices that followed—showed Drew how his family’s hard work and sacrifices can pay off. Michael then showed him how tenuous life as a farmer can be.

“The storm has made us consider: ‘Is this something we want to do?’” David told me. “What if this happens again? I don’t want to think about it. But there’s a chance.”

After a while, Drew looked up from the limbs, again catching sight of Roy, who’s determined to salvage whatever remains of his crop, regardless of whether it’s enough to break even. His grandfather had bent down to grab a fallen nut. Following his lead, Drew picked up a shell, cracked it with his bare hands, and pulled out the raw pecan. The bite he took was a taste of what was lost, and of the harvests to come.

This article appears in our January 2019 issue.

The I-85 fire could have destroyed Basil Eleby’s life. Instead, it may have saved it.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
The flames caused a span of I-85 to collapse. Miraculously, there were no injuries.

Photograph by WSB-TV via AP

First came the smoke.

The thick black plumes billowed up from under Interstate 85, two miles northeast from where the Downtown Connector splits, blanketing motorists lurching through rush-hour traffic on March 30, 2017. A wedding planner was the first to call 911. It was 6:12 p.m. Eight minutes later, firefighters arrived near the base of the overpass, where they clamped a hose to a hydrant. But the water wasn’t coming out right. Same luck at a second hydrant. A third finally worked. Firefighters hurled water toward the brilliant orange flames that had grown taller than a four-story building, enshrouding a highway now as empty as a scene from The Walking Dead

More engines were en route, including trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport equipped with oxygen-suppressing foam that could smother 2,000-degree flames. (The trucks got stuck in traffic.) Beneath I-85, the fire was fed by spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit stored there. The overpass above was designed to support more than 400 tons, but the immense heat was dissolving the bond between steel and concrete. At 7:14 p.m., nearly an hour after the first firefighters arrived, a 79-by-92-foot segment of the overpass—roughly the size of a basketball court—collapsed.

From the stairwell of the Intown Suites, roughly 200 yards away, Basil Eleby stared into the smoke enveloping I-85. Eleby was 39, an Atlanta native, and homeless. For years, he’d struggled with drugs and alcohol, cycling between life on the streets and in a cell. Eleby preferred his solitude. But when people got to know him, as some owners of the auto repair shops clustered near the southeastern edge of Buckhead had done, he was easy to talk to. Trustworthy, even. They liked him enough to throw him odd jobs—unloading trucks, detailing cars. The owner of GT Automotive even let Eleby use the shop’s bathroom and sleep in a broken-down Mercedes parked out back. Eleby laid blankets down across the rear seat, placing his clothes and toiletries up front. An extension cord stretching from the shop to the car powered Eleby’s microwave and charged his cell phone.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Eleby in front of the Mercedes where he used to sleep

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

As he would tell me, a year after the fire, his days were broken down into a series of “missions,” as he called them. The goals were simple: food, shelter, or just a fix.

That day, a hot Thursday in early spring, had already been a long one for Eleby. Earlier that afternoon, he’d washed cars at a tire shop off Cheshire Bridge Road. Then he hustled over to the Intown Suites, where rooms typically rented for under $200 a week. Intown Suites, which has since closed, was well-known to Atlanta police, who frequently responded to reports of fighting, theft, drugs—even the occasional shooting. When Eleby had first come here, years ago, it was to buy crack. Sometimes he befriended guests, running errands in exchange for a few dollars or some drugs. That afternoon, he’d later tell police, he’d come for work, to walk Panda, a guest’s dog. Soon after the highway fell, he found himself with a third job. Eleby would get $100, plus free cigarettes and alcohol, to make sure a guest, who was planning to go on a bender, didn’t get robbed. After midnight, Eleby walked 10 minutes north on Piedmont Road, past the firefighters, to GT Automotive, and settled into the Mercedes to sleep.

The next morning Eleby headed back to Intown Suites, looking to walk the dog again for another $20. His path took him down an alley toward Tower Liquors. As he cut across the lot, several arson investigators were looking his way. Are you Basil Eleby? they asked. 

The investigators wanted to know what he could tell them about the fire. I don’t know who started it, he said. They asked him if he’d help ID a potential suspect at the station. He slid into the back of a squad car. The windows were rolled down, which Eleby took as a sign he wasn’t in trouble. But as the car moved closer to APD’s Buckhead precinct, he heard a click. He was locked in.

The morning after the highway collapsed, metro Atlanta was forced to reckon with its longstanding ambivalence—and, at times, resistance—toward any form of transportation that wasn’t the automobile. Now, the region skeptical of buses and trains really needed MARTA. Ticket sales almost doubled their daily weekday average. During his morning commute from North Springs to his office at Lindbergh, Keith Parker, the CEO of MARTA, rode in a standing room only train. Parker increased train frequencies to every six to eight minutes, instead of 10, and extended service hours.

School leaders, remembering the images of children stuck on school buses during SnowJam 2014, had already canceled classes to alleviate traffic. Governor Nathan Deal secured $10 million from the White House to kickstart the rebuilding. The public had to be patient, Russell McMurry, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, told reporters. The damage necessitated closing the highway in both directions. The rebuilding of 700 feet of highway—the span that collapsed plus five other segments that were structurally compromised—could take months. The nearly 250,000 vehicles that daily relied on this stretch of highway would have to find another way.

Meanwhile, Atlanta fire investigators and federal agents fanned out to speak with witnesses. None had seen the fire break out. But one man had noticed a homeless couple leaving the spot where the flames had originated. Lt. Jeffrey Cutrer, a city fire investigator, tracked down the couple, Barry Thomas and Sophia Brauer, at a laundromat near the Lindbergh station.

The couple told investigators they had indeed been under a stretch of I-85 just east of where the overpass crosses Piedmont Road, and had actually planned to sleep there the night of the fire. The parcel beneath that tenth-mile portion of the highway was owned by GDOT, which used the space to store unused materials from abandoned projects. At the time of the fire, there were 76 four-feet tall spools of conduit. Here, as under many of Atlanta’s highway overpasses, the homeless ate, drank, and occasionally built fires to stay warm—even though “no trespassing” signs marked the area as off-limits. Parts of it, though, were so poorly fenced off that skaters had poured concrete to build a makeshift skatepark.

At the MARTA police station, Thomas described what he’d seen before the fire: a man hoisting a worn-out recliner into an abandoned Target shopping cart. The man reached under the cart, flicked a lighter, and held the flame until the chair caught on fire. The flames spread to the massive spools. In a different interview room, Brauer described running into the same man in the Lindbergh Kroger parking lot, about a mile north of the overpass. He looked toward the smoke, said “I did that,” and chuckled. When different investigators asked who the man was, Thomas and Brauer separately provided the same person’s name: Basil Eleby. 

About an hour later, investigators were questioning Eleby inside the Atlanta Police’s Buckhead precinct. Eleby said he knew about the spot under I-85. He often walked a path that cut through GDOT’s property to get from the Mercedes to his jobs. The last time he took that route, he told investigators, it was Thursday afternoon, about two hours before the fire. He’d been on his way to walk Panda and had run into Brauer and Thomas. Sitting among the spools, the couple sipped on beers. Eleby hadn’t lingered long, he told police. Within 10 minutes, he had continued on his way to Intown Suites.

Eleby admitted he had smoked crack—he didn’t have enough for Brauer, who asked if he might share—but insisted he left the scene before the fire started. Even after a federal investigator read Eleby his Miranda rights, he kept talking. He didn’t ask for a lawyer. He drew a crude sketch that showed his recollection of the position of the chair and cart. But based on Brauer and Thomas’s statements, police placed Eleby in handcuffs and put him in the back of a squad car. He was headed for Fulton County Jail, a place he knew well.

That weekend, on websites and social media feeds, thousands saw Eleby’s mugshot—his scraggly hair, his black zip-up jacket, his tired eyes. A WSB-TV segment featured an interview with Brauer, blaming the fire on Eleby. From his South Fulton home, Marcus Coleman was dismayed. The founder of the Atlanta chapter of the National Action Network—Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights nonprofit—saw a familiar narrative being played out: the vilification of a homeless man. He feared the arrest would embolden officials to displace homeless people camped under highways, or hasten the closing of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter, Peachtree-Pine, whose operators were locked in a bitter lawsuit against the city. On Facebook, Coleman messaged several attorneys.

“We need to help this Brotha,” Coleman wrote. 

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Mawuli Davis (left) and Eleby in Davis’s law office, where Eleby works part-time

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

One of the attorneys, Mawuli Davis, agreed to join Coleman in assembling a legal team that would include three other criminal defense attorneys: Tiffany Roberts, Gary Spencer, and Lawrence Zimmerman. In early April, Roberts visited Eleby in jail. Roberts found him to be calm and courteous, but overwhelmed. Eleby had a long rap sheet: 19 arrests over 22 years, on charges that included selling drugs, criminal trespassing, and urban camping near I-85. His longest stint in jail—six months in the mid-2000s—came after he sold $20 worth of crack to an undercover officer. Now he was facing felony arson and property charges that could put him in prison until he was in his sixties.

Eleby began telling Roberts about his past. When he was seven, his mother had lost custody; he and his three younger siblings moved into their aunt’s two-story apartment in the English Avenue neighborhood. Drug dealers sold crack nearby. His aunt, who struggled with addiction, bought drugs with money sent by his mother. Eleby spent time in foster care. After his mother regained custody, they moved to Kimberly Courts, a public housing development in southwest Atlanta. The family bounced from house to house, and Eleby never got a high school diploma. When he was 20, a coworker at Wendy’s asked if he wanted to smoke weed after work. Eleby said yes. Other drugs followed, including cocaine. He started selling drugs to pay for his habit. The only times he could stay sober for more than a week was whenever he landed back in jail.

On Good Friday, two weeks after the fire, Eleby’s attorneys arrived for a press conference on the Fulton County courthouse steps. Davis declared Eleby’s arrest a “railroading on steroids.” A group of attorneys and activists urged the public to call a 1-800 number with tips, to purchase $24 Basil Eleby T-shirts to fund his defense, and to pack the courtroom for his bond hearing. Five days later, his lawyers secured Eleby’s release on a $10,000 signature bond, which allows a defendant to be released from jail without putting up any cash. There were conditions: no arrests, no drugs, no witness contact. And he couldn’t set foot within a thousand feet of the I-85 bridge without a lawyer, cutting off Eleby from his old life, including the car where he slept.

The attorneys were the first of dozens of Good Samaritans who would step up to help Eleby, providing the kind of wraparound service that would be the envy of even the most progressive cities. Their efforts also revealed the limits of that kind of approach—that no matter how aggressive and nurturing the efforts, their outcome would ultimately depend on Eleby and Eleby alone. His most immediate need was a roof over his head, which came via a friend of Davis’s, who operated a sober-living residence just south of I-285. Eleby joined seven other residents, who shared everything from the kitchen utensils to copies of the “Big Book,” the Bible for 12-step recovery programs. Eleby was required to wake up at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays, tidying his room and doing chores, such as cleaning the bathroom or wiping down the kitchen. A security camera hung above the front door to document residents’ comings and goings. The counselor who oversaw the treatment facility, a man by the name of Original Michael, had himself overcome drug addiction, and knew how hard it was to break free of crack’s grip.

Eleby’s old routines, scheduled around his next fix, were now gone. His personal relationships, built around the rituals of drug use, were gone. His independence, restricted by the terms of his bond, was effectively gone. Eleby’s recovery hinged on rewiring his very existence. Michael agreed to cover all of Eleby’s healthcare costs and to navigate him through the process of recovery: a psychiatrist (who would diagnose Eleby with PTSD), individual and group counseling, and 12-step meetings. For Eleby, the stakes couldn’t be higher; a relapse could send him to prison.

Russell McMurry, the GDOT commissioner who’d spent decades climbing the agency’s ranks, circled on his calendar the most important day of his career: June 15, 2017. That’s when he had promised to reopen the 10-lane highway. Along the way, workers would have to clear 13 million pounds of debris, fabricate 250 tons of steel, and pour 2,100 cubic yards of concrete. Officials estimated the 250,000 inconvenienced motorists would collectively lose more than half-a-million dollars each day that I-85 remained closed. An Invest Atlanta survey of businesses within a 10-minute drive of the fire site found that more than half lost customers, faced longer delivery times, and had to allow for workers who couldn’t get to their jobs on time. 

Within an hour of the highway collapse, GDOT had retained C.W. Matthews, the Marietta-based construction giant. C.W. Matthews is one of most politically connected firms statewide, completing more than $2 billion in business with the agency since 2008. By the next day, C.W. Matthews had shifted dozens of workers from other projects to focus on the overpass rebuild. They subcontracted with D.H. Griffin, a North Carolina–based demolition company, which helped clear the World Trade Center’s rubble after 9/11, to remove the six damaged spans. In early April, GDOT sweetened the pot: If C.W. Matthews finished by May 15, a month ahead of the date McMurry promised the public, it would get a bonus of $3.1 million. Crews worked around the clock. The total costs would climb to nearly $17 million. 

Engineers ordered 61 beams made of pre-stressed concrete with steel reinforcement, each a different length given the curve of the highway. Within two weeks of the fire, state troopers began escorting a cavalcade of trucks hauling the beams, from plants as far away as Savannah, to the construction site. Cranes lifted the beams, some weighing 120 tons, more than two stories into the sky before gently positioning them. In typical highway building, pouring this much concrete would take 28 days to dry—called ‘curing’—but engineers opted instead for a more expensive composite containing a finer cut of cement, allowing it to cure in approximately 28 hours.

On Friday, May 12, six weeks after the bridge collapsed, GDOT inspectors gave the all-clear. During that evening’s rush hour, as cars crawled along the Downtown Connector, workers tossed the last orange construction cones into the back of a GDOT truck. TV stations streamed live coverage of the highway reopening. With their lights flashing, APD officers steered their blue cruisers north on I-85 toward the rebuilt spans. Around 7 p.m., drivers picked up speed and crossed the overpass, as if it were just another rush hour.

One sweltering Wednesday night in late July, 10 weeks after the highway reopened, Eleby stepped inside Sankofa United Church of Christ, the West End congregation that had supported him since his release. Just a few days earlier, Eleby had relapsed for the first time since the fire, ending a nearly four-month stretch of sobriety. Though relapse is a medical setback common among patients in addiction treatment, his lawyers worried his bond might nevertheless be revoked, further damaging the public perception of him ahead of a trial. Davis had asked the church’s pastor, Derrick Rice, to convene everyone who expressed support for Eleby after the fire. Now, three dozen people had assembled there for a single goal: shower Eleby with love until he could love himself again.

The following month, volunteers bought Eleby groceries and a MARTA card so he could get back and forth from the recovery house to his treatment. Eleby hadn’t had a license for at least six years, so volunteers drove Eleby not only to his many appointments, but to everyday places like libraries, parks, and restaurants. Eleby went on hikes with several health advocates who preached to him about self-care. He attended services at a mosque with Reginald Muhammad, the legal investigator whom Davis had assigned to mentor Eleby. The constant companionship wore on Eleby, who began to see his caretakers as probation officers. He wasn’t wrong: Ken Love, a Sankofa member who coordinated Eleby’s schedule, tracked his movements with an app on his phone.

“I shouldn’t be here, with all the drugs I was doing. I shouldn’t be coherent. I shouldn’t be healthy.”

In late September, Eleby didn’t show for a church event. Love checked his app. Eleby’s cell phone appeared to be off. Love drove around to spots where Eleby said he might go if he were to relapse, including Intown Suites. When Love pulled up, he saw people using and selling drugs, but no Eleby.

Eleby resurfaced the next day. Not long after, he failed a drug test, confirmation of another relapse. At his next court hearing, Judge Constance Russell ordered Eleby to take another drug test. It came back negative. Russell allowed Eleby to stay in treatment, but it was his last chance: “If you flunk a drug test again,” she warned, “your bond will be revoked.”

Just as some had wondered if the I-85 collapse might be a wake-up call to invest more in transit, Mawuli Davis thought Eleby’s story might be an opportunity for the city to confront its checkered history with homelessness. Leading up to the 1996 Olympics, Fulton County officials famously bought homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town, while Atlanta police faced a lawsuit for overaggressive policing of people sleeping on the streets. In the years that followed, mayors shaped their homelessness agendas to capture more federal funding. Mayor Shirley Franklin embraced a strategy that required the homeless to work or stay off drugs before getting shelter; Mayor Kasim Reed, on the other hand, adopted a “housing first” approach that sheltered people first before addressing their employment or medical concerns.

For Davis, the mission was also personal. In 2015, his older brother, Nate, had died at 56, following a decades-long struggle with substance abuse and depression. “I couldn’t save my brother,” Davis told me. “I decided to save another brother.” But despite his hopes that Eleby’s eventual recovery would lead to greater investment in services, homeless citizens seemed even more in the crosshairs, as Coleman had feared. In August, three months after I-85 reopened, Central Atlanta Progress, the civic group that represented downtown business interests, purchased the building that housed Peachtree-Pine for $10 million—a deal that both settled a longstanding lawsuit with the city’s largest emergency homeless shelter and forced its closure. That fall, APD began actively discouraging church and service groups from feeding homeless people without permits. That winter, authorities stopped allowing the homeless to sleep in the atrium of the Atlanta airport—a warm, safe public space that was accessible via MARTA. For his part, Davis, named a member of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s transition team, still hoped Eleby might someday exemplify what happened when Atlanta prioritized building people rather than building buildings.

That, of course, started with Eleby’s defense. Though it wasn’t admissible in court, Eleby had passed a polygraph test. Looking at police records, Davis felt the state’s case was flimsy: no surveillance footage placed Eleby at the scene of I-85’s collapse; investigators had built a case based on the account of a drug user whose criminal trespassing charge had been dropped after she named Eleby. During discovery, the legal team obtained a $258,600 invoice for the construction materials, including conduit that was combustible if exposed to high heat, that had been stored under I-85 since 2012. A federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives report showed the fence around the spools had a hole wide enough for a person to pass through. No matter how the fire was sparked, Davis reasoned, the highway wouldn’t have collapsed if the materials had been stored elsewhere.

Davis thought he could win a jury trial. They’d found a witness who could vouch for Eleby’s alibi on the night of the fire. Prosecutors, for their part, hadn’t objected to Eleby remaining in addiction treatment after his relapses. But his lawyers felt he might be a strong candidate for one of Fulton’s accountability courts, an alternative sentencing program that offers supervised addiction and mental health treatment for 18 months. “Basil needed treatment,” said Lawrence Zimmerman, one of his lawyers. “If the case got dismissed, he wasn’t going to get treatment.” His lawyers and prosecutors struck a deal: If he graduated from the program, the charges would be dropped. But if he didn’t, he’d again be looking at prison time.

On a snowy Friday in December, Eleby straightened his donated red tie, slipped on his coat, and got a ride to the courthouse from Reginald Muhammad, the legal investigator at Davis’s firm. “Go forth and do well,” Judge Russell told Eleby. “Don’t let me read about you.” Outside the courthouse, Eleby urged reporters to focus on those “who still are where I was, out in the cold and out in the rain, and they feel that they just don’t have no way out.”

One morning shortly after Christmas, Muhammad drove to the sober-living house to find out why Eleby had missed the last bus home from the College Park station the night before. He had relapsed again. Muhammad urged Eleby to remember everything at stake, the people counting on his recovery, everybody he could potentially help if he stayed sober. You’re taking the easy way out if you go back to drugs, Muhammad told him. You’ve got to take part in the fight, too.

The week after his third relapse, I drove out to meet Eleby at the Davis Bozeman law offices near the Gallery at South DeKalb mall. I was intrigued by the notion that a fire that could have destroyed his life might now turn out to be his salvation. When I asked what he hoped for, five years from now, he listed four things: a bank account, a truck, a place of his own, and a girlfriend who was also drug-free.

One day in early 2018, we drove around southwest Atlanta, where he showed me where Kimberly Courts had stood before its demolition. It was there, Eleby explained, that he was thrust into being the oldest man of the house, at the age of seven, because his father was absent. We drove past the old site of Job Corps—a free federal vocational training program for young adults ages 16 to 24—where he once aspired to learn electrical engineering, something he had dreamed of as a teenager when he took apart his Walkman to see how it worked. But, he said, he got kicked out for fighting, even though he said he was trying to defend another student who was getting picked on.

Eleby felt the early-life traumas he endured forced him to be self-reliant, but also self-destructive. Perhaps now, though, the things that once seemed unattainable could actually be his if he committed to a sober lifestyle. Maybe the acts of love—the countless car rides, the late-night phone calls, the genuine acceptance at community events—no longer seemed an act.

“I had to create a new me,” Eleby said. As he stepped out of his comfort zone, leaving behind the solitude of his old world, he inched toward doing “normal, everyday things that normal people do.” Instead of going through the motions of recovery, sitting quietly in group counseling sessions, he opened up. Instead of treating human interactions as transactional—taking what he needed to survive on the streets—he asked how people were doing, expressed gratitude, and volunteered for the causes of people who had helped him. He began reading Malcolm X speeches, Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he’d say out loud: I love myself. I forgive myself.

But the entire process of rebuilding his life moved slowly. Simple tasks like getting a social security card—a requirement to get into his job-training program—could take most of a full day without a car. While he had developed trust with male mentors, he struggled to make meaningful connections with women he liked without the aid of alcohol or drugs. In one of his treatment groups, he befriended a woman. He worked up the courage to invite her to a formal gala. Eleby was all smiles that night, posing for photos with her. But her own struggles—trying to stay sober while tending to her children’s needs—forced her to postpone a second date. In the past, that kind of disappointment might have triggered Eleby to relapse. But he was practicing the art of patience.

“I shouldn’t be here, with all the drugs I was doing,” Eleby told me. “I shouldn’t be coherent. I shouldn’t be healthy. I should be real messed up—well, I mean, I’m still a little bit crazy from the effects. They’re starting to dissipate day by day. I’m coming back more every day.”

One Friday in April, I met Eleby again at Davis’s law firm, where he was organizing old case files, on the payroll. It had been a year since the fire. Since then, he had followed up on job offers, ones from a clothing store and a construction firm, but the weekly demands of accountability court conflicted with regular hours required for those jobs. Now, for $10 an hour, he was getting assignments no one had bothered to tackle in years. He pulled apart the stacks of boxes, deconstructing the disorder, before putting it back together in an orderly fashion.

A few minutes before 6 p.m., Eleby lugged a few last boxes down to Davis’s Lexus and took me up on my offer for a ride back to Atlanta. As we drove west on I-285, he shared with me some of his smaller victories over the past several months. He had finished a round of court-mandated treatment, started working out at a gym, and detailed cars again on the side. 

But despite his progress, he acknowledged, the work would never end. At our destination off Moreland Avenue, he thanked me for the ride, unbuckled his belt, and opened the car door. He walked across the lot, waved to a familiar face, and headed inside for the evening’s 12-step recovery meeting.

Elaine Chao, the U.S. secretary of transportation, called the swift repair of I-85 a “marvel of dedication.” The Atlanta Regional Commission gave engineers an “unsung heroes” award. The Braves presented a framed No. 85 “C.W. Matthews” jersey before a game. Georgia Trend named McMurry “Georgian of the Year.” The state transportation board approved a six-figure raise that increased the commissioner’s salary to $350,000—more than double that of Governor Deal’s.

MARTA’s importance was acknowledged, too: Deal committed $100 million in state money to four MARTA bus interchanges along Ga. 400—a fraction of the $1.8 billion devoted to the highway’s broader expansion. State lawmakers continued to pass on funding rail expansion. Parker, the optimistic transit chief who had hoped to retain those new customers after I-85 reopened, watched ridership revert to the steady decline it had seen since 2002. Late last year, he departed from MARTA, a blow to transit advocates who have struggled to win widespread support for rail expansion along the entire Atlanta BeltLine. The true test of MARTA’s future growth—a referendum next March to bring rail to Gwinnett County—still hangs in the balance.

Similarly, homeless activists like Coleman and Davis never saw their hopes fully materialize. Mayor Reed, along with the United Way’s Regional Commission on Homelessness, pledged to invest $50 million to make homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring” by offering temporary housing and services. That announcement, followed by a city estimate that Atlanta’s homeless population within shelters had dropped to just around 3,000, offered hope that people who were connected to services would break the cycle of homelessness. But a closer look into those figures is disconcerting: The number of people living outside of shelters has actually gone up. Homeless citizens still camp in plain sight, though authorities conduct occasional sweeps under bridges and highways, periodically directing them to services. The Bottoms administration has created One Atlanta—a city office tasked with recommending policies on issues such as homelessness—but has yet to announce major initiatives. 

This spring, the National Transportation and Safety Board concluded that GDOT had neglected the risk of a fire underneath one of Atlanta’s major highways. Even if someone had started a small fire, the report found, GDOT’s construction materials provided fuel for a catastrophe. No individual state employee was ever held responsible for the decision. New state policy is to no longer store construction material under highways.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Basil Eleby

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

One morning in August, Eleby took a final drag on a Newport, flicked the butt toward the street, and grabbed his belongings. The night before, he had packed everything he owned into a mismatched set of backpacks and briefcases. Now, in the light of morning, he slung a pile of donated suits on hangers over his shoulder, walked out the front door of his treatment house, and placed them in Original Michael’s Buick. Eleby was about to end one chapter of his recovery, the one where he achieved the longest stretch of sobriety in his adult life, and enter another chapter, one with greater rewards—and risks.

Near downtown East Point, Michael turned left down a long driveway toward four squat red brick buildings. Michael had secured a scholarship for free transitional housing at Keep It Simple House—a new apartment complex he described as “for addicts, by addicts, that aren’t just addicts.” Like the rest of the 30 or so tenants, Eleby would need to pass routine drug tests and attend a weekly meeting on Sunday nights. But he’d get his own room and could go about his day without checking in with anyone else, so long as he was home by 10 o’clock each evening.

Already that summer, Eleby had taken small steps to prepare for this move toward independence. He completed the first six months of his 18-month treatment program for accountability court. Not only was he working at Davis’s law firm, he was training to become a certified forklift operator, and also had his sights on a driver’s license. Eleby was considering an offer from Michael to get trained as a peer recovery support specialist, coaching others through the early days of sobriety.

The week after July 4, his mother had died suddenly. Instead of seeking out drugs to numb his grief, he found comfort knowing her funeral had brought his brothers and sisters closer together, following years of estrangement that had sprung from his addiction.

When Eleby opened the door to apartment 20, he found a furnished two-bedroom unit with a kitchen, living room, and patio. It was his first apartment in over a decade. He unpacked his bags, filled his closet with shoes and suits, and folded his shirts. He spotted the black zip-up jacket he’d been wearing after his arrest. When he had packed it, memories flooded back of all the risks he took in it to buy crack and get high. He didn’t want to wear it again for a while. But he didn’t want to throw it out, either. Instead, he folded it neatly and set it near his other clothes. There it would stay—a reminder of how far he’d come, and how far he still had to go.

This article appears in our November 2018 issue under the headline “The Fire and Everything After.”

Atlanta’s housing authority stopped building rental units for nearly a decade. Can it make up for lost time?


Atlanta housingTwo months before he left office on January 1, former mayor Kasim Reed announced the sale of Old Fourth Ward’s Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center. Little was surprising about the $31 million deal for the half century–old performing arts center—once home to Family Feud tapings, Music Midtown sets, and even a visit from president George W. Bush. After all, the venue was in the middle of an area teeming with redevelopment, and Reed had made it a priority of his administration to sell off underutilized city properties. The only surprising thing? The buyer wasn’t a private developer but another public agency: Atlanta Housing.

Before the turn of the millennium, the city of Atlanta was considered a national pioneer when it came to public housing: the once-radical concept of providing low-income residents with housing subsidized by taxpayers. In 1935, Atlanta became the first city to build public housing. Decades later, it was one of the first to begin replacing its squat and sprawling apartment complexes—15,000 deteriorating units—with newly-built communities for low-income and middle-class residents. Techwood Homes became Centennial Place. Critics attacked the approach, arguing it was a top-down attempt to gentrify areas, break up communities, and push poverty from the city to the suburbs. Regardless, in the late 2000s, the Great Recession effectively stalled the housing authority’s efforts.

From 2009 to 2016, the city permitted the construction of more than 25,000 new luxury apartments. But nearly all of Atlanta Housing’s 400-plus acres of undeveloped property stayed vacant. The economic recovery, combined with the growing popularity of intown living, should have jump-started the authority’s efforts. Instead, they were stymied, this time by the autocratic Reed’s animus toward Renee Glover, who had led the authority since 1994 and butted heads with the mayor over her leadership style. In addition, HOPE VI, the federal program that helped fund new construction, began to wind down shortly after Reed took office. Following Glover’s resignation in 2013, Reed sued Integral Group, one of Atlanta’s most prolific developers of rental units for low-income families, for allegedly colluding with Glover to secure land deals. (Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms dropped the suit.)

Consequently, the authority got wrapped up in power struggles instead of building new units. All the while, the supply of affordable housing in Atlanta dwindled by 25 percent. Agency leaders focused more on encouraging private landlords to accept authority-backed Section 8 vouchers, the rent subsidy used by nearly half of all Atlanta Housing households, for existing units. (More than 27,000 families are on the waiting list for the rental assistance.) According to the Housing Justice League, every year since 2012, five percent of Atlanta’s affordable units, which are subsidized for set periods, expired and went to market-rate rents.

“People were starving for the development of affordable housing,” says Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens. “Over nine years, nothing [from Atlanta Housing] went vertical, nothing had been constructed. It was a missed opportunity.”

It wasn’t until 2016, when the average Atlanta rent had climbed to over $1,300 from nearly $1,000 five years earlier, that Atlanta Housing proposed Herndon Square, a $150 million mixed-use development west of Coca-Cola’s headquarters. That 700-unit project—with nearly half of those units either fully subsidized for seniors or available to residents earning under $35,000—won’t be completed until 2021. At least three other developments, including the Civic Center, are set to follow.

“Atlanta Housing had [become] more responsive and reactive rather than proactive on the real-estate development side,” says Brandon Riddick-Seals, who became the authority’s interim CEO after his predecessor, Catherine Buell, resigned this past spring. “We’re getting back in touch with ourselves to answer the need of the market.”

Backed and regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Atlanta Housing serves more than 50,000 people, with three-fourths of those households earning less than $24,300 per year. Residents must prove their citizenship, income levels, and lack of criminal history to receive subsidized rent. Once approved for public housing, residents over age 18 must work, attend school, or enroll in job training. (The elderly and disabled are exempt.) No more than 30 percent of a household’s income goes toward rent, with federal funds offsetting the rest.

Beyond a roof over a family’s head, Riddick-Seals says Atlanta Housing’s goal is to foster “stronger communities, brighter futures, and better lives” for residents. Atlanta Housing has started taking a holistic approach to offering wraparound services like childcare and educational programs. “They’re looking at the wellness of the whole individual,” says Thomas Boston, a Georgia Tech professor who has studied revitalization efforts in public housing. “That’s where they’re moving.” The hope is that, with Atlanta Housing’s help, residents can obtain better jobs and move toward homeownership.

“The crisis of affordable housing is now bigger than the housing authority.”

Dan Immergluck, professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, says Atlanta Housing should devote more funding to rental subsidies that are affixed to specific rental properties, keeping affordable units available in gentrifying neighborhoods. Georgia State sociology professor Deirdre Oakley believes the authority must get back to building—and fast. The longer the authority waits, she says, the more responsibility it holds for the lack of rentals for low-income residents. “The crisis of affordable housing is now bigger than the housing authority,” Oakley says. “If you’re not building new [units], you’re not helping all the people you could. They need to do the redevelopment they said they were going to do. That would be a step in the right direction.”

In the coming years, Atlanta Housing figures to play into Bottoms’s promise to pump $1 billion into affordable housing. Before she took office, the Atlanta Housing board had already passed a policy to prioritize helping people who live in census tracts where new development threatens to displace them, including in neighborhoods adjacent to the BeltLine like West End, Pittsburgh, and Reynoldstown. Authority officials have also looked into acquiring or investing in affordable housing units currently operated by MARTA and the BeltLine.

Riddick-Seals argues that Atlanta Housing’s “missed opportunity”—its undeveloped land scattered across the city, from northwest Atlanta’s Bowen Homes to Thomasville Heights on the southeast side—is now among its biggest assets. Whether building on old sites like the 26-acre Englewood Manor in Chosewood Park along the BeltLine or revitalizing neighborhoods near the Atlanta University Center, Riddick-Seals says the authority is committed to turning vacant acres into vibrant affordable housing at a time when it’s desperately needed.

In the Old Fourth Ward, where BeltLine-area development has crept toward low-income communities clustered near Boulevard, the Civic Center is likely to be a good measure of just how committed the authority is to building affordable housing. Initially, Atlanta Housing’s plans called for nearly a third of the 420 units to be deemed affordable. This past summer, though, Riddick-Seals decided to press pause on the 19-acre site to rethink how best to incorporate affordability, equity, and preservation into the mixed-use project. “It’s a great one,” he says. “But we’ve got to get it right.”

Atlanta housing graphic
Source: Atlanta Housing’s Vision 2022 plan

Atlanta Housing Authority Families
AHA provides housing opportunities to five general groups.
1,383 at-risk of homelessness
3,425 disabled households
5,899 senior households
7,964 families with children
9,886 working families
22,533 total households served

This article appears in our November 2018 issue.

In the twilight of his career, AJC political columnist Jim Galloway worries about what he won’t write

Jim GallowayJim Galloway starts the workday in his daughter’s old bedroom. Every morning at seven, he flips open his Dell laptop to scan the first of as many as 500 emails that’ll flood his inbox that day, looking for something juicy to drive the political conversation. He’ll write blurbs and compile others from colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other outlets. His dog, Sherlock, must wait for a walk until his daily morning blog post, “The Jolt,” goes live.

Thousands of politicians, lobbyists, and everyday Georgians open the AJC’s political roundup each morning. As they do, Galloway will steer his Nissan pickup from Kennesaw to the Georgia State Capitol. There, the 63-year-old columnist will chat with government workers in the halls and legislators in their offices, looking for inspiration for his semiweekly Political Insider column. Nearly everyone here—from the governor to the troopers patrolling the Gold Dome—knows him by name. They all read him religiously.

Since Jimmy Carter held the White House, Galloway has penned thousands of stories chronicling politics in the South, from the slow progress after the civil rights movement to the rise of the Republican Party to Stacey Abrams’s bid to become America’s first black female governor. The longest-tenured AJC journalist, Galloway garners an unparalleled level of trust with officials across the political spectrum, in part due to his vast institutional knowledge, the envy of political journalists statewide. To his colleagues at the Capitol, he’s “Chief.”

“I’m concerned with how we’re going to—or not going to—change.”

Unlike some national columnists who use their words to defend or boost their partisan bents, Galloway focuses on the way political ideas founder or flourish. He’s captured the essence of elder statesmen (he described a reflective 91-year-old Carter, following a cancer diagnosis, as a “marathon runner, giddy and relieved at having crossed a finish line—upright, and of sound mind if faltering body”) and exposed the bluster of opportunistic politicos (he wrote of GOP gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams’s disastrous July 2017 press conference: “He skedaddled. He vamoosed. He fled the journalists he had so noisily summoned”).

“You think he’s not listening and observing—but he is,” says Max Cleland, the former Democratic U.S. senator. “He’s drawing conclusions while you’re thinking about the next thing to say.”

Galloway’s introduction to Georgia was inevitably political. On the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Galloway family moved from Ohio to just outside College Park, where the eight-year-old’s school had yet to desegregate and “whites only” signs hung at local fishing holes. A poor typist as a teenager, Galloway first contributed to the University of Georgia’s Red and Black newspaper as a photographer. He honed his writing, becoming the city editor, but got suspended for casting multiple ballots in a student government election as part of an investigation into potential voter fraud.

Internships at the Atlanta Constitution and for Sen. Sam Nunn, plus a reporting gig at the Anderson Independent, followed. In 1979, the 23-year-old was hired to write and edit for the AJC Extra’s North Fulton edition. His first true writing job, covering religion, took him from Ku Klux Klan meetings in North Georgia to the Southern Baptist Convention. During the next 20 years, he collected datelines from Blue Ridge to Beijing before landing at the Capitol in August 2001. Six weeks later, after 9/11, coverage of the war abroad started crowding out state politics.

The following summer the AJC launched Political Insider, an online column that promised intrigue from “Georgia’s war rooms and back rooms.” Then in his mid-40s, Galloway could lift the curtain on the political theater under the Gold Dome, providing insight and authority in ways straight reporting often did not permit.

When lawmakers battled over removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag in 2003, Galloway “was the person able to talk to all sides through his writing,” says former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, then a state legislator. Republican House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge appreciated how the columnist framed today’s politics in the context of the past. And as Republicans like Johnny Isakson, who first became U.S. Senator in 2005, got elected statewide, they never forgot how Galloway eschewed a partisan lens. “He gets to the heart of the issue with the curiosity of Bill Shipp and the integrity of Ralph McGill,” Isakson says.

Over the years, Galloway’s work has landed him on the Washington Post’s list of top statehouse reporters, an increasingly endangered species. Locally, he’s caught some flak from the left (Abrams’s campaign in May critiqued his analysis of voter turnout leading up to the Democratic gubernatorial primary) and the right (GOP political strategist Seth Weathers recently tweeted: “Jim Galloway IS Fake News”).

When asked about his mistakes, Galloway acknowledges his potential blind spots as an older white male and how that could affect his perspective on the latest iteration of the human rights movement. In the twilight of his career, he’s “not so much worried about what I do write but what I don’t write.” His recent columns have focused on marriage equality, the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, and the family legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. “I’m concerned with how we’re going to—or not going to—change,” Galloway says. “And this is something you have to say carefully to white Republicans, but at some point, karma is a bitch. And as you treat, so you shall be treated.”

Though carpal tunnel and neck surgery have slowed him down, Galloway hopes to write for the paper through his 40th anniversary in May 2019. Afterwards, he plans to spend more time with his wife, Judy, two daughters, and woodworking tools. He won’t quit writing: A biography of Zell Miller or Roy Barnes may be in his future. Before then, he’s got a few stories to file on the divisive gubernatorial campaign this fall.

“I think about how we’re unable to have political conversations in this country anymore,” says Bert Roughton, the AJC’s recently retired managing editor. “Right now, Jim Galloway is kind of what the world needs.”

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

Street Saviors: How Atlanta is helping—not jailing—the homeless, mentally ill, and addicted

Robby Ivy
Robby Ivy

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Robby Ivy’s job description reads like that of a paramedic: irregular hours and long, idle stretches, then rushing to an emergency at a moment’s notice. On a brisk Thursday night, her pink cell phone rings after a quiet four hours at her downtown office. She jots down the details relayed by the police officer on the other end: Male. 51. Forsyth Street. Criminal trespassing. “We’ll be there shortly,” Ivy says.

She tosses a set of car keys to her coworker, Justine Ingram, and within 10 minutes, their bright-yellow taxi van pulls up to the Five Points MARTA station. Atlanta Police Officer Kelvin Crawford introduces the pair to “William,” a homeless veteran who asked one too many customers for spare change inside a McDonald’s. Instead of putting William in handcuffs, Crawford places him in Ivy’s care.

Ivy grabs a cheeseburger, fries, cookies, and a coffee for William and escorts the south Georgia native back to her office, where she gives him clothes and books him a weeklong stay in an extended-stay hotel. Then, Ivy gently prods William for personal details, hoping his answers reveal why he’s been homeless off and on since 1996. William stares at Ivy, wondering why someone would drive around downtown after dark helping Atlanta’s forgotten residents.

“People’s outlook on the homeless, drug addicts, and sex workers is that they choose to be like this,” Ivy later says. “I do what I do now because I understand. I know what it’s like. I’ve done all of that.”

Look at Ivy now—a bubbly 51-year-old mother who collects singing stuffed animals and knows all the words to “Rapper’s Delight”—and you’d be hard-pressed to see the scars of her past trauma. A military brat, Ivy left Valdosta for Atlanta at the age 0f 15. She met a pimp on Auburn Avenue and started frequenting clubs and using cocaine. Multiple times, she quit drugs and the sex trade, only to fall back into that world.

Following another relapse in 2009, after six years without drugs, she grabbed her .38 pistol, put it in her mouth, and pulled the trigger. No bullet fired.

“The folks we’re helping have fallen through the gaps of social service providers. We want to help them stop falling.”

Ivy has been drug-free since the suicide attempt. She now uses her experiences to help others get off the streets. The Mableton resident’s work as a “care navigator” is part of a $2 million experiment from the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and private foundations that has created an unlikely alliance between police officers and criminal justice activists. Together, they’re trying to answer a key question: Can helping the addicted, mentally ill, and homeless instead of hauling them to jail make Atlanta safer?

Robby Ivy and other navigators respond to officers’ calls before people get arrested.
Robby Ivy and other navigators respond to officers’ calls before people get arrested.

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Five years ago, after activists defeated an Atlanta City Council proposal to banish convicted prostitutes, they teamed up with officials to create the Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, which tries to keep people who commit nonviolent minor crimes like begging and prostitution out of jail. PAD takes cues from similar programs in cities like Seattle, where participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested again. Unlike other cities, where the person is linked to services after an arrest, a PAD participant gets access to services instead of being placed in handcuffs. Ivy works as part of a two-person team responding to calls during a four-day-a-week trial period.

“The folks we’re helping have fallen through the gaps of social service providers,” says Moki Macías, executive director of PAD. “We want to help them stop falling.”

For people like William, who does not own a car or have a steady job, a process as simple as getting a new ID can take weeks. And not having an ID is often a barrier to getting into shelters or receiving other services. The care navigators, while not directly involved in treatment or job training, guide people like William through the complex web of services. With Ivy’s help, William hopes to find work and go back to school. First, he must kick his long-term crack habit and learn to cope with the pain of his daughter’s murder three years ago. Ivy vows to stick with him “through the end of time,” no matter his struggles.

Before someone can get Ivy’s help, APD officers must persuade both the accused (for example, a hotel lobby loiterer) and the accuser (a hotel manager calling 911) to choose diversion over arrest. Not everyone qualifies. PAD currently operates only in select parts of downtown, Midtown, and the Old Fourth Ward.

To date, PAD has taught roughly 70 officers how to use its services. The more officers trained, the better APD can further “change the police culture,” says APD Chief Erika Shields, who helped design the program. But even if every eligible officer is trained, the program may have limited success until more care navigators come on board.

PAD, a two-year pilot that started last October, aims to divert 150 people to prove that the program should be extended. The effort started slow, with only five diversions during the first 90 days. But after tweaking the hours of availability, the team diverted nearly as many in the following two weeks. They’ll need to divert seven people per month to meet their goal by the end of 2019.

One freezing night last winter, Ivy and Ingram carried Krispy Kreme donuts into the CNN Center, a treat for night-shift police officers attending a briefing session. An officer joked to Ivy that he’s already diverting people—to Fulton County Jail on Rice Street. She smiled, and, in case he was serious, walked through the program again. He promised to try calling PAD.

“We may not change the world,” Ivy says. “But we can show it doesn’t have to end at Rice Street.”

At the nation’s largest opioid conference, Georgians call for new ways to battle the epidemic

Georgia opioid crisis
The Prescribed to Death memorial was on display at the 2018 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

Photograph by Max Blau

The white pills, fixed on a set of black walls, were perfectly spaced in rows and columns like tiny candy buttons on a giant paper strip. The sight was mesmerizing from a distance; but if you stepped closer, you’d see that each pill had a face carved into it. The thousands of faces were of people who lost their lives to opioids—part of a traveling memorial called Prescribed to Death. One of the faces is in the likeness of Missy Owen’s son, Davis.

Six years ago, the incoming Kennesaw State student was looking for a sleeping aid in his medicine cabinet and found Vicodin. He tried one, grew addicted to the painkillers, and eventually switched to using heroin. In 2014, Davis was admitted to rehab. But a few weeks after completing treatment, he relapsed and fatally overdosed. As the Owen family searched for answers—reading news articles and calling doctors—Missy knew she couldn’t just move on. She had to find a way to do something to prevent other mothers from losing their sons.

“No one really invests in solutions when they don’t have the problem,” Owen says. “If you don’t do research ahead of time, you’re behind the eight ball when it ends up in your lap.”

Georgia opioid crisis
A conference attendee takes a photo of the Prescribed to Death memorial.

Photograph by Max Blau

Georgia opioid crisis
A close-up of the Prescribed to Death memorial

Photograph by Max Blau

This week people from Atlanta to Alaska traveled to the Hyatt Regency for the 2018 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, the country’s largest conference devoted to the opioid crisis. In a sea of nearly 3,000 doctors, drug users, sheriffs, and officials—including former President Bill Clinton and Surgeon General Jerome Adams—Owens was among the legion of Georgians who spoke on panels, presented research, and handed out t-shirts and tote bags filled with information about rehab facilities in hopes of driving down opioid deaths.

“American life expectancy has declined two years in a row—unheard of since 1960s,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “[This is] the public health crisis of our time.” Opioids killed 42,000 Americans in 2016.

Attendees spent the conference debating the best ways to tame the epidemic, including better treatment options and smarter prescribing practices. Georgia U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, the only pharmacist in Congress, called upon his profession help stop the “rogue doctors” who overprescribe prescription pills. And Dr. Patrice Harris, a former Fulton County health director who’s now chair of the American Medical Association’s Opioid Task Force, preached the importance of carrying naloxone, the opioid reversal drug often referred to by its brand name Narcan. Some advocates like David Laws—whose daughter Laura, a 17-year-old North Atlanta High School student, fatally overdosed in 2013—are continuing to push schools to stock up on naloxone as well.

Georgia opioid crisis
David Laws holds a photo of his teenage daughter Laura, who died of an overdose in 2013.

Photograph by Max Blau

To see the effects of prescription opioids—which contributed to more than half of Georgia’s nearly 1,000 opioid deaths in 2016—look no further than the Atlanta V.A. Medical Center. Emory University-affiliated psychiatrist Karen Drexler, who works with the V.A., warned that opioids can “hijack a part of our brain” that determines what’s most important for survival. As some veterans have grown addicted to opioids, the need for drugs overrides other needs like food or safety, she said. To help overcome opioid addiction, Drexler said, patients should be steered toward either methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone—often referred to as “medication-assisted treatments”—to achieve long-term recovery.

It’s not just patients at risk of opioids—but doctors, too. Dr. Paul Earley of the Georgia Professionals Health Program discussed how weekly “Caduceus” meetings bring together 75 physicians to talk about their substance use issues. Between those meetings, plus a combination of inpatient rehab and constant screenings, nearly three out of four doctors who go through the specialized program remain drug free after five years. Along the way, Earley said, the doctors are able to keep practicing medicine instead of losing their licenses.

As synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a drug so potent that only a handful of grains can prove lethal, have become a bigger threat, CDC epidemiologists said they’re now tracking the spread of those drugs to help avoid clusters of overdoses, such as the one that killed six people in Macon last June.

While Georgia’s opioid death rate is still rising, the National Safety Council graded the state as one of the best when it came to strengthening opioid-related laws and regulations. The broader response also includes parents like Owen, who after looking for solutions decided the best way to honor her son was to open an “after-care” center for drug users in recovery after they complete treatment. Every month 3,500 people come to the Zone, a 21,000-square foot facility in Marietta, to attend group therapy sessions, learn how to use naloxone, and hang out other friends who are trying to quit drugs. Owen’s hope is that, by creating the community that Davis lacked, she’ll eventually see fewer faces on engraved those pills.

Will Atlanta restaurants soon serve insects? This scientist hopes so.

Edible Bugs
A classic wedge topped with not-so classic palembus dermestoides, or buffalo worms

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Chelsea Thomas cuts celery stalks into bite-sized pieces and slathers each with peanut butter. A few dozen kids and their dutiful parents have taken seats in the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s outdoor kitchen, where the 27-year-old is demonstrating how to make “ants on a log.” She picks up a vial the size of a blood sample and removes the lid to extract her secret ingredient: actual ants, lightly roasted.

“Have you tasted them before?” one boy asks. “Yes,” Thomas, who is wearing a dress printed with ladybugs, answers before assuring him that they’re “yummy.”

Grams of protein in 100 grams of meat

19.4 mealworm
19 chicken
20.6 beef
20 salmon

When she’s not at the Botanical Garden, where she runs the amphibian conservation program, Thomas tends to scores of beetles, cockroaches, and other insects living in the spare bedroom of her two-story Duluth home. Ever since the Buckhead native first tasted chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers, in Mexico at the age of seven, she’s become a bug ambassador of sorts. She extols their virtues—they’re rich in protein, fatty acids, and iron—to anyone who might listen. And she’s quick to point out that they’re cheaper to cultivate and more environmentally sustainable than conventional meats. (It takes 2,000 times the amount of water to produce a pound of beef than it does for a pound of crickets, for example.) Eighty percent of the world’s countries already consume insects, and, with high-profile chefs like José Andrés serving grasshopper tacos at Oyamel in Washington, D.C., and Brad Kostelyk cooking Thai water beetles at Nue in Seattle, Thomas dreams of Atlanta becoming the insect culinary capital of the South.

Plus, she finds them delicious. “This is not just a survival food,” she says. For an average weeknight dinner, Thomas might make wax worm tacos or toss pasta in pesto made with mealworms instead of pine nuts. In a blind taste test, there’s little discernible difference between worm pesto—she playfully calls the dish pesto tenebrio, for the scientific name of the species—and “normal” pesto. As for the ants, they’re slightly sour without being over-the-top acidic.

Edible Bugs
Chelsea Thomas (pictured) says you can buy scorpions at edibleinsects.com. “People eat them in Thailand—and I have tried one, too!”

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

But thanks to federal regulations, Thomas can’t serve what she grows to those kids or to anyone at Botanical Garden tastings. Instead, she offers them Food and Drug Administration–approved prepackaged insects. “Regulations definitely allow for the farming of edible insects; they just have to be grown in approved facilities,” she says.

Currently, only a few Georgia farms are growing insects for human consumption. “It’s still considered novel,” says Marianne Shockley, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia. Shockley sees insects following the trajectory of sushi: Americans resisted eating raw fish at first, but now, it’s sold at almost every major supermarket in the country.

Empire State South’s Hugh Acheson, who once fried crickets on Top Chef, thinks it will take some time for insect-based dishes to go mainstream. “We’re not trying to have an ‘I dare you’ restaurant,” he says. “But change is in the air.” Atlanta has made some tiny steps: Sublime’s Kamal Grant sold doughnuts adorned with crickets, mealworms, and scorpions on Halloween a couple years ago, and last summer, a local entrepreneur named Akissi Stokes launched mealworm protein cookie company WUNDERgrubs. To see real change, though, Thomas says she must convince skeptics to overcome their preconceived notions about consuming what we usually want to squash. “I don’t think we need to be okay with cockroaches in the kitchen to enjoy delicacies like wax worms,” she says. “Not all insects are the same.”

Back at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, she gets Cobb County teacher Patrick Hydo to try real ants on a log. He turns to his six-year-old daughter, Ceci. “Will you take a bite if I take a bite?” They both do. “Did you like it, Ceci?” he asks.

“Yeah,” she says with a smile and moves on to cricket-flour pumpkin spice cake.

This article originally appeared in our January 2018 issue.


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