Rocrast Mack's Murder At Alabama Prison Followed Trail Of Violence By Guards
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Late on the night of August 4, 2010, a badly beaten young man arrived at the trauma ward of Jackson Hospital here. Although the patient was hardly a flight risk, security was tight and prison guards crowded into the emergency room as doctors began treatment.
The patient's limp body spoke to the savagery of an assault that had left deep contusions on his legs and torso, and inflamed knots bulging from his head and face. He was unresponsive, with fixed and dilated pupils, and doctors quickly diagnosed a traumatic brain injury. Only a ventilator kept him alive. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.
His name was Rocrast Mack. An Alabama prison inmate, his death at age 24 came at the hands of six corrections officers, who took turns battering him with their fists, feet and batons in retribution for a minor altercation with a female guard earlier that night, according to witness accounts and prison records.
Civil rights advocates call Mack's death an avoidable tragedy, the inevitable product of a profoundly dysfunctional state corrections system in Alabama that ranks among the very worst America has to offer.
It is a system flooded with low-level drug offenders like Mack, who was sentenced to 20 years behind bars after pleading guilty to selling $10 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover cop in 2009.
Alabama is also emblematic of a broader problem facing America's prison system: In many states, there simply isn't enough room to hold all of the people who are incarcerated. Against that tableau, inmates often born and bred in hard luck circumstances now find themselves mired in a loop of violence that extends from the street and into prisons themselves.
Yet even in a nation that has little to boast about in terms of prison efficiency and quality, Alabama stands out for what appears to be the sheer brutality and freewheeling nature of its corrections system.
Starved of funds, the state's aging prisons suffer from the worst overcrowding in the nation, operating at an average of 190 percent of their design capacity. Ventress Correctional Facility, where Mack died, is an outlier even by this standard. Built in 1990 and designed to accommodate just 650 men, the facility now holds 1,665 prisoners -- more than 255 percent of its capacity.
Alabama has not ignored Mack's death. Last month, more than a year after it occurred, the Alabama attorney general charged the ranking officer at the scene, Lt. Michael A. Smith, with intentional murder for the beating.
The charge, which could put Smith behind bars for life, is unusual. Even when excessive force is alleged after an inmate death, prosecutors rarely bring charges above manslaughter or negligent homicide, according to Gene Atherton, a former prison administrator and consultant on use of force in prisons and jails.
Federal prosecutors have also taken action. On Nov. 18, the Justice Department said a junior officer involved in the assault, Scottie T. Glenn, had pleaded guilty to two felonies: violating Mack's civil rights and conspiring with fellow officers to cover up the assault.
Civil rights advocates welcome the charges, but say they don't go nearly far enough. What is truly needed, they say, is widescale reform to alleviate brutally harsh conditions that foster violence by inmates and guards.
"What happened with Mr. Mack is almost predictable," said Charlotte Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, a prisoner legal assistance group based in Montgomery.
It is not just independent groups calling for reform. Conditions are so dire that senior Alabama lawmakers recently warned fellow legislators that the prison system risks seizure by the federal courts and a mandatory mass release of inmates. In California, when the Supreme Court recently ordered the release of 30,000 inmates on constitutional grounds, the state's prisons had an overcrowding rate of about 170 percent.
"Alabama is facing a crisis with its prisons -- too many inmates and not enough beds," Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the state senate's judiciary committee, wrote in an editorial in the Birmingham News earlier this month.
Severely overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed, the state's prisons have become incubators of disturbing levels of inmate-on-inmate violence, according to prisoner advocacy and civil rights groups that work in the state. Equally troubling is a sharp rise in allegations of brutality by Alabama corrections officers, these groups say.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints coming into our office concerning guard-on-inmate assaults," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI. "Physical assaults of inmates by guards have become an accepted part of the culture in a lot of Alabama prisons."
Facilitating the abuse are outdated standards for monitoring guard and inmate interactions -- video cameras, common in most state and federal prison systems, are rare in Alabama, for instance -- and follow-up investigations after assaults that are haphazard at best, critics say.
Such shortcomings in oversight allow problem officers to operate without consequences until they inflict a catastrophic injury on a prisoner, as in the case of Mack, according to Sarah Geraghty, senior staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta civil liberties group that works extensively in Alabama's prisons.
"The department has been on notice a long time that they have a serious problem with how they investigate reports of brutality," she said. "Their approach has been to bury their heads in the sand."
State officials readily acknowledge problems with staffing and overcrowding, but adamantly reject charges that Alabama's prisons are rife with violence and abuse.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Richard Allen, the prison commissioner at the time of Mack's death and now Alabama's chief deputy attorney general, described the prison system as "very well-run."
"I don't think our prisons are different from any other system in the country," Allen said. "Alabama is maybe less violent than other facilities."
Allegations of widespread inmate abuse are simply not believable, he added. "Prisoners have been known to exaggerate," he said.
Allen described the fatal assault on Mack as "a tragedy," but said an internal investigation by the department of corrections had found no evidence of other wrongdoing by officers at Ventress Correctional Facility.
The review was conducted by James DeLoach, the department's senior official for operations, who personally briefed Allen on the findings, Allen said. DeLoach refused repeated requests for an interview and declined to answer questions by email or provide a written statement.
"In Mr. DeLoach's judgment, it was an isolated incident and was not part of a broader problem," Allen said. "He looked into it."
'PLEASE HELP ME'
An examination of the records and documents surrounding Mack's murder sharply contradicted the apparent conclusion by the Alabama Department of Corrections that it was an isolated event.
To the contrary, court records and other documents demonstrate that both agencies overlooked clear signs of escalating violence by guards at Ventress in the period before Mack was killed.
In particular, documents reveal numerous excessive force allegations against Lt. Michael Smith, now charged with murder, and other guards at Ventress. It is a pattern that prison officials and the Alabama attorney general's office either did not recognize at all or failed to take any serious steps to address.
Court records show that Smith became a familiar face to the Alabama attorney general's office between 2009 and 2010, a period when the state vigorously defended him in three separate federal brutality lawsuits filed against him by Ventress prisoners.
All three complaints contain documentation of serious unexplained injuries to the prisoners and were deemed credible enough by a federal judge to withstand repeated attempts by the state to have them dismissed without trial. (One suit was recently dismissed on technical grounds; the other two remain pending.)
Smith had been investigated by the Alabama Department of Corrections for brutality in a fourth case, according to a deposition in a federal lawsuit, before being promoted to his supervisory role at the prison. The corrections department declined to share details of the allegations or the investigation into them.
After the multiple brutality complaints were described to Allen, the former commissioner, he revised his statement. "At some point I was informed that Smith was the subject of other allegations," he said. "I was not aware of that at the time of the alleged murder."
But charges of abuse at Ventress go well beyond a single rogue officer.
Lawsuits, interviews, sworn affidavits and inmate letters all describe a poisonous atmosphere at the prison, where guards -- several under Smith's command -- allegedly beat and abused inmates who crossed them with little apparent concern for the consequences.
Some brutality claims are supported by records of injuries and sworn statements by inmate witnesses. Others are simple handwritten cries for help. In their totality, they paint a disturbing picture of lawlessness at the facility in the time preceding Mack's death.
"The environment is very scary at the moment," Lavaris Evans, then 21 and serving three years at Ventress for an $1,800 credit card theft, wrote to a prisoner assistance group in April 2010.
"Today they beat a real close friend of mine until he was knocked out," Evans continued. "He's beat very badly to the point that he can't open his eyes."
"If there's any way you can get me far away from here," he wrote. "Please help me."
Allegations of widespread inmate abuse at the prison are further bolstered by a sworn statement made by Paul T. Costello, a Ventress guard, filed in late October in U.S. District Court in Montgomery in response to an inmate lawsuit.
The document indicates that in July 2009, a group of Ventress guards, including two senior officers, witnessed Smith's violent assault on an inmate, then falsified internal reports and perjured themselves in federal court by denying their involvement in the incident.
Bryan Stevenson of EJI said the officer's statement "clearly establishes" a history of abusive behavior by officers at Ventress before Mack's death. "It makes a statement that the violence against Mr. Mack was an isolated incident not credible."
"Many officers clearly thought they could act violently toward prisoners with impunity," he added. "That develops when repeated acts of unauthorized use of force go unpunished."
Reached by phone, J.C. Giles, the Ventress warden, refused to answer any questions about violence at the facility.
'A TICKING TIME BOMB'
Brian Corbett, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, declined to respond to allegations of systemic abuse at Ventress, citing an ongoing investigation by the FBI and Department of Justice.
"We, therefore, are unable to comment or release any additional information regarding this incident due to continued criminal and civil investigations," he said.
Allen, the former commissioner and current chief deputy attorney general, also declined to comment on the allegations of broader violence at the facility. "There is nothing I want to say," he said.
But the state's overall policies regarding violence and inmate abuse in its prisons were made amply clear over the past two years, during litigation of a federal class-action suit filed on behalf of inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison east of Birmingham.