SHUDDER at the bloodcurdling screams. Cringe at the zombified inmates. Witness the scenes of torture...if you dare!
Oh, come ON, why so serious? It’s all part of the frenzied fun at Panic in the Pen, the haunted Halloween thrillfest giving out goosebumps at the old county jail on Montgomery Street through Oct. 31.
Wait, did you think I was alluding to something else? Perhaps the viral video depicting Sheriff’s deputies tasing a barely conscious Matthew Ajibade in the testicles while he was he locked in a restraining chair, where he was found dead a few hours later?
I can see how you might make that mistake. After all, both events feature terror and gore, both happen inside a local jail and both are brought to you by the Chatham County’s Sheriff’s Office.
Of course, there are obvious differences. One takes place in the current holding pen on Chatham Parkway, the other at a disused facility downtown. One has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees; the other is raising funds for charity. One is real, the other is pretend.
To conflate the two is what Gena Bilbo, director of public affairs for the Sheriff’s Office, calls “a heckuva stretch.”
I guess I’ve been doing too much yoga, because Ajibade’s death is came immediately to mind when the first Panic in the Pen press release circulated in September. It promised “all sorts of doom and gloom” and “maybe even a clown or two ... remember killer clown, John Wayne Gacy???”
Some of us at the office thought it a bit unusual that a law enforcement agency would host a chamber of horrors at the ol’ prison when two of its deputies had recently been indicted for killing an inmate and seven more fired over the incident, and also that namedropping a raping serial murderer was a selling point.
What’s next up on the Docket of Inappropriateness, we joked, a Holocaust Easy-Oven Bake Sale? How about a firecracker show for the Boston bomb victims?
But it wasn’t until the video of Ajibade being beaten and tortured was released during the recent trials of former deputies Maxine Evans and Jason Kenny that the terror-in-the-clink concept moved beyond simple poor taste to flat-out bad judgment.
As the sickening clip lit up national news sites and social media, I reached out to Bilbo two days before the haunted jail preview to see if the Sheriff’s Dept. planned to release a statement acknowledging the painful parallel.
I did my best to clarify that the aim of my query was not to vilify anyone involved in the Halloween show; rather, I saw it is an opportunity to broker a conversation about police brutality and our broken justice system—and perhaps help temper yet another national PR disaster for Savannah.
“Not sure how ANYONE can be outraged by a 20 year old unused county facility being put to use to raise money for 2 kids groups and wounded warrior[s],” responded Bilbo in an email.
“This event has been planned since last June and giving kids an opportunity to earn community service hours. So sorry Connect Savannah doesn’t support us.”
Look, I would never want to diminish the charitable aspect of this event and applaud any opportunity for volunteer work—even if it means shrieking in people’s ears and carrying around your own intestines on a plate.
Funds generated from Panic in the Pen benefits Chatham County Explorer Post 876, Chatham County Youth Commission and the Wounded Warrior Project, three important local organizations that create opportunities for our kids and provide vital services to our soldiers.
It also bears a mention that Connect is supporting Panic in the Pen with pro bono ads in this week's issue and the last one.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out what seems to be a serious case of cognitive dissonance.
I have been following the Ajibade case from the beginning, when the 21 year-old Nigerian-born SCAD student was arrested New Year’s Day on a domestic violence charge. According to reports, his girlfriend begged police to take him to the hospital, giving the officer a bottle of medication used to treat Ajibade’s documented bipolar disorder. Instead, he was taken to the Chatham County jail, where he became combative and broke a deputy’s nose. He was then wrestled into the restraining chair and a spit mask placed over his face. He was still wearing it when he died.
Last Friday, a local jury acquitted Evans and Kenny of involuntary manslaughter, though the lesser charge of cruelty stood for Kenny and his perverse use of the Taser. Evans could face jail time for perjury.
Reports of the not-guilty verdicts in Savannah—along with the video—rose to the front page of dozens of internationally-read sites including the Huffington Post and garnered thousands of comments, many professing shock that jurors didn’t see the violent video as sufficient evidence to convict the deputies.
Ajibade’s family wasn’t nearly as surprised. “I knew that that same system that failed Mathew would not be the system that got him justice,” cousin Chris Oladapo told NBC News. “We expected nothing, and we got nothing.”
“Disappointment requires a conflict of expectation,” echoes attorney Mark O’Mara, who is representing Ajibade’s family. He calls the assistant DA’s performance in court “subpar prosecution from start to finish” and that the handling of the case indicates a “serious institutional unawareness” in the Sheriff’s department.
O’Mara will be filing a civil suit on behalf of the family later this month against the county as well as its contracted healthcare provider, Corizon Health, and several individuals including Evans and Kenny. The lawsuit will seek punitive damages as well as demands to overhaul the deputy training program.
“Matthew Ajibade was deprived of his federal and civil rights and suffered at the hands of this department,” says O’Mara. “With that kind of systemic incompetence, it will happen again.”
After the verdicts, I contacted Bilbo again to discuss Panic in the Pen, described as “super super scary” by a couple of last weekend’s attendees.
She explained that the fundraising event had indeed been planned for over a year, though the original venue was outdoors.
Concerns about the weather led the organizers to tap the abandoned jail as a possible locale, spurred by the popularity of The Walking Dead.
Bilbo said that finding old guard and inmate uniforms inside during a preliminary tour sealed the deal, and that hundreds of dollars and hours have been donated to produce the event.
She reiterated that any scenes of torture involve inmates restraining a guard, not the other way around.
The planning committee also brought in a paranormal investigation team to validate purported ghostly activity in the jail, imprinted by the “murders, suicides and natural deaths” of prisoners within the concrete walls.
“But you don’t see any connection between those souls and Matthew Ajibade?” I pressed.
Wrong question. “What is wrong with you? Were you not allowed to have Halloween as a kid?” she replied.
I replied that it was, in fact, my family’s favorite holiday, but that I was honestly trying to understand how the Sheriff’s Dept. could not see the irony of its participation in actual torture and putting on a “fun” house that depicts it.
“Well, you and your editor [Jim Morekis] are literally the only people who have complained,” she retorted.
I don’t doubt that’s true, considering the unsettling lack of local outcry over the Ajibade verdicts. Anyone who’s familiar with my work and Jim’s knows we ain’t skeered of being the lone werewolves in the pack.
Yet I have to wonder if any others have kept silent out of fear of intimidation by those sworn to protect and serve?
Or simply rendered speechless by the abject absurdity of it all?
I know there are plenty of decent folks who will enjoy having the pee scared out of them at Panic in the Pen this weekend, and I sincerely hope barrels of dollars are raised for the good works it benefits.
But after the fake blood is mopped up and the zombies go home, some of us will still be haunted by the screams.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.