Her son died in a Georgia prison. Now she wants answers

Nancy Masters, 68, tickles her 4-year-old grandson Memphis in their home in Dalton, Ga. on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. Masters’ son and Memphis’ dad, Joshua Carl Haynes Lester, was fatally stabbed while serving time at Central State Prison in July of 2021. He was supposed to come home in August of 2022. Masters’ now has permanent custody of Memphis and is raising him alone. (Photo by Evey Wilson Wetherbee)

Nancy Masters of Dalton had plans for retirement — plans for fun things like scuba diving.

Her plans changed, though, when at the age of 68, she got permanent custody of her 4-year-old grandson, Memphis. Now, days she’d hoped would be spent in travel are spent taking care of Memphis, getting him to and from school, and on the phone with the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Masters’ son, and Memphis’ father, Joshua Carl Haynes Lester was killed while serving time at Central State Prison in Macon on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. He was 34 years old and was expected to come home August 2022.

Masters remembers the night vividly.

“I got a phone call,” she said. “It said ‘Macon’ and I thought it was Joshua because that was about the time he would always call to talk to me.”

The person on the phone asked if this was Ms. Masters and she said yes.

“They said, ‘Well, there’s been an altercation at the facility and your son is deceased,’” Masters said. “That’s the way I found out.”

Masters took Memphis to a house next door and went into her garage to scream. A neighbor came to help and she handed over the phone.

“I wasn’t crying, I was just screaming,” she recalled.

Later she was told by the sheriff that she should not have learned of her son’s death that way.  There should have been a sheriff’s deputy and a chaplain at her home in Dalton, in person, to give her the news of her son’s death. But instead, she only had that phone call.

“I’ve just been trying to get justice for him every day since then,” she said.

Masters plans to file a civil or a wrongful death suit, but she has been unable to move forward. 

That’s because the Department of Corrections won’t release the investigation report of Lester’s death. They say it’s agency policy to hold on to those reports while a criminal case is pending. Masters was told that it would take an attorney and a subpoena to even begin getting around that policy.

It’s been tough finding that attorney. 

“I’ve called so many attorneys,” she says, “and they just say it’s so hard, and the ones that do this, they were swamped and couldn’t take another case.” 

Plus, she said it’s hard for an attorney to even determine if she has a civil case to make without first seeing the investigation reports. 

Masters is working against a clock. She only has a year after her son’s death to file the suit. But despite her weekly calls and open record requests, she has still been unable to find out necessary information about her son’s death. 

She has seen the autopsy report, and she knows how her son died.  

Lester was stabbed through the back, puncturing both his heart and his lungs. Masters’ understanding was that he had tried to stop an altercation between inmates. She was told there were no guards around.

“So the inmates went to look for a maintenance worker to go get the guards, and when they finally got there, he was gone,” she said. 

Masters’ grandson, Memphis, reminds her of her son. And sometime in May, Nancy Masters will finalize the adoption of her grandson.

“I’m all Memphis has,” she said. “It’s bittersweet because he looks so much like his daddy and acts so much like his daddy, but he is my blessing.”

This story comes to The Georgia Sun through a reporting partnership with GA Today, a non-profit newsroom focused on reporting in Georgia.