Alabama prison death highlights pattern of officials promoting bad bosses

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Brynn Anderson / Associated Press

Prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., on June 18, 2015.

This is the fourth story in a series detailing problems in Alabama prisons. 

Montgomery, Ala. — Correctional officers allegedly beat and hogtied Billy Smith at Elmore prison in November 2017, leaving him screaming for help as supervisors worked nearby. Lt. Kenny Waver waited at least an hour before sending Smith to a nearby prison health facility with two officers, according to a confidential state report obtained by Injustice Watch.

One officer, Jeremy Singleton, had allegedly abused Smith earlier. When the officers returned Smith two hours later, witnesses said Smith was unresponsive, snoring with open eyes, and bruised across his body. But Waver didn’t collect written statements that night from Singleton and the other officer, said the report.

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Smith died 26 days later. A state autopsy attributed his death to blunt force brain trauma.

In July, an Elmore County grand jury indicted Singleton with one count of manslaughter for allegedly striking Smith repeatedly and denying him medical care. His trial is scheduled for December, court records show. But Waver and other supervisors have evaded serious consequences for what happened to Smith, personnel records obtained by Injustice Watch reveal.

The Smith case highlights a broader leadership failure at Elmore Correctional Facility, an overcrowded and understaffed state prison in central Alabama with a history of allegedly abusive and neglectful managers. Personnel records show the prison has employed various supervisors who rose through the ranks despite previous discipline for using excessive force, deceiving superiors, and violating inmate safety protocols.

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Alabama investigators detailed the brutal events that led to Billy Smith’s death — including dousing him with water while unresponsive and a nurse who refused to treat him.

LaTonya Tate, executive director of the Alabama Justice Initiative, said that many of the prison’s problems boil down to a simple fact:

“When you have a culture of promoting bad leadership,” she said, “bad leadership is what you get.”

Two of the three officers who allegedly beat Smith won promotions to sergeant after his death, personnel records show. One of the officers was Singleton, who prison officials promoted eight months after Smith died.

Prison leaders dampen their chances of retaining good officers and embolden violators when employees, especially supervisors, aren’t held accountable for misconduct, said Steve J. Martin, a leading correctional consultant who is currently overseeing reforms at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York. He has examined hundreds of prisons across the country in his nearly 50-year career, including several in Alabama.

He called the Alabama Department of Corrections a “very poor system, in terms of both leadership and pay.”

“They simply do not put enough prison staff into their operations,” Martin said. “And they don’t have the quality of leadership for who they do put in there.”

Injustice Watch made repeated calls and sent multiple letters and emails to the supervisors named in this article, asking about their disciplinary incidents and their roles in the Smith case. All either declined to be interviewed or did not return messages.

Injustice Watch also asked the Alabama Department of Corrections about supervisory misconduct at the Elmore prison. Spokesperson Samantha Rose did not provide a response to reporters’ questions or connect them with officials who could offer answers.

Gina Maiola, a spokesperson for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, wrote in a statement that Alabama’s prison woes are “a multifaceted problem requiring a multifaceted, Alabama solution.” The statement cited “decades of neglect and an outdated model where inmates are warehoused instead of rehabilitated.”

The statement also identified “new prison infrastructure” and “criminal justice reform” as two ways Alabama can improve its prison system. Maiola did not elaborate further, answer specific questions about the problems at Elmore, or answer questions about improving leadership and culture at the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Corrections experts cite the dangerous nature of the job and low pay as significant challenges to hiring and retaining good employees at places like Elmore Correctional Facility. The prison, designed for 600 prisoners, holds about 1,200. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice found the facility only employed 41% of the officers it was authorized to have.

Legal advocates note another issue—Alabama’s civil service laws.

For decades, the state has made employment decisions through a merit-based system that favors experience. As a result, the state chooses prison supervisors from the guards who have been trained and worked in a system with conditions that, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged last year, violates the constitution.

The path to leadership

Lt. Kenny Waver oversaw the shift command office at Elmore Correctional Facility on the evening of Nov. 13, 2017, according to the state investigative report about Billy Smith’s death. He was one of the top supervisors on duty during Smith’s ordeal.

Waver, a former textiles worker, joined the department of corrections in 1997, according to his employee file. He moved to Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., a year later. Draper, at the time, along with Elmore and nearby Staton Correctional Facility, still used hitching posts as a punishment when inmates refused to work. The practice, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in 2002, involved handcuffing prisoners to a bar and forcing them to stand for an extended time.

Waver received high marks on his performance reviews during his time at Draper, earning a promotion to sergeant in 2005. But two years after he arrived at Elmore prison in 2007, problems started to show.

In 2009, Waver failed a polygraph test during an investigation into the alleged assault of an inmate, his personnel record shows. Giving false information during an internal investigation is a fireable offense, according to the corrections department’s regulations. Waver was also accused of “abusive or excessive physical force in dealing with inmates.” But officials suspended him for just three days.

Officials did not respond to questions about why Waver kept his job.

Waver was suspended two more times at Elmore, in 2010 and 2011, for showing up late to work, according to his personnel records. But in June 2012, his records show that prison officials promoted Waver to lieutenant and transferred him to Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent. While there, Waver received a two-day suspension for failing to follow up when a subordinate took a prisoner to receive medical care for an “unknown illness.”

Waver returned to Elmore in June 2016, according to his employee file. Several months later, prison officials again found that he had deceived his superiors and lied to investigators in another case from his time at Bibb prison. An internal investigation concluded that Waver failed to “ensure the safety of an inmate” and “falsely reported an incident” to the warden.

But Waver kept his job. Even though it was his second time lying to investigators, Alabama prison officials gave Waver another three-day suspension. Waver did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Smith’s case and his disciplinary history.

The supervisor who took over for Waver the night that correctional officers allegedly attacked Billy Smith had also won promotions despite a history of disciplinary issues.

Corrections officials had suspended Lt. Gerald Tippins six times before he arrived at Elmore in July 2015, according to his personnel file. One suspension came after an inmate escaped on Tippins’s watch.

In October 2008, when Tippins was a sergeant at the Frank Lee Youth Center in Deatsville, 20-year-old Justin Hosch escaped the correctional facility during his shift, personnel records reveal. Hosch killed auto-shop owner Joel Willmore and stole his truck. Investigators said the inmate “simply walked out of the youth facility,” according to reports by WAFF 48, an NBC-affiliated television station.

On the evening of the escape, a kitchen supervisor told Tippins that Hosch had not reported to the kitchen for work, according to Tippins’s employee file. Prison officials concluded that Tippins knew Hosch was missing but did not alert anyone or try to find the inmate. Officials also discovered that Tippins initially recorded that the facility’s inmate count was one prisoner short—but edited the record two hours later “to clear the facility count.”

Authorities eventually apprehended the escapee in Scottsboro, nearly 200 miles away from the facility, according to news reports. (Hosch, convicted of capital murder, later committed suicide while on death row, according to prison officials.)

An internal inquiry determined that Tippins’s actions gave Hosch a 13-hour lead over law enforcement. A letter in Tippins’s personnel file signed by Richard Allen, who was the state prison chief then, noted the severity of Tippins’s misconduct. Tippins’s superiors still claimed that his misconduct did not lead directly to the escape, and suspended him for 10 days in 2009. The next year, prison officials promoted Tippins to lieutenant.

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not make a public announcement when Hosch escaped. Amid fallout over the killing, Joel Willmore’s mother pushed for a 2013 state law requiring authorities to notify media and law enforcement within 12 hours after discovering a prison break. But this is the first time that Tippins’s connection to the case has been reported to the public.

After a year as a lieutenant, Tippins took a voluntary demotion to sergeant in November 2011. Tippins wrote in a letter to his bosses that the change was necessary “due to issues that have proven difficult for me to correct,” without elaborating further. Tippins then worked at Tutwiler Prison for Women for several years before being promoted back to lieutenant and transferring to Elmore in 2015.

Personnel records show he was disciplined in connection with an August 2016 escape at the prison. Tippins was overseeing the night shift when he assigned an officer to watch three inmates in transfer cells near Elmore’s back gate, where a captain had warned him not to keep prisoners overnight. One of the three prisoners escaped during Tippins’s shift.

Prison officials didn’t blame the supervisor for the escape but instead penalized him for not following orders.

Tippins received a two-day suspension, records show.

Like Waver, he still works at Elmore prison.

Trouble at the top

Brynn Anderson / Associated Press

A prisoner walks near his crowded living area in Elmore Correctional Facility on June 18, 2015.

Karl Griffin worked two stints as a correctional officer at Elmore prison, the first in late 1991 and again from 1994 to 2011. He said that when he started, “it was a great place to work.” But the state kept putting more inmates there without enough staff.

By the time he left, “the place was a madhouse,” Griffin said.

“Things got out of hand, and the culture was getting worse and worse with the officers,” said Griffin, who retired in 2016. He recounted how one officer was allegedly smuggling cell phones to inmates and beat a prisoner over a payment dispute.

When Griffin left Elmore, Leeposey Daniels was the top warden there.

In 2014, the Equal Justice Initiative reported an alleged pattern of abuse by officers and supervisors under Daniels. The legal advocacy organization alleged nearly a dozen cases of correctional staff taking prisoners to isolated areas, stripping them naked, restraining, and then beating them.

The practice had allegedly been going on for years with at least tacit support from leadership and, in some cases, direct participation by top brass. In one instance, Daniels “paraded a severely injured man in front of other inmates and announced that the beating was intended as a warning,” according to the organization’s report. In 2015, Daniels was transferred to the nearby Staton Correctional Facility and has since retired. Daniels could not be reached for comment. Officials did not answer questions about the terms of his departure.

Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, said Elmore’s problems are rooted in a longstanding practice of  “management through force” and a lack of rehabilitative programs to incentivize good behavior by inmates. The use of force, “and the willingness to misreport and cover-up instances where the use of force is excessive, is a big part of why we have this culture of violence,” she added.

“This has allowed these problems to persist and for additional lives to be lost while that mismanagement persists,” Morrison said.

Joseph Headley transferred to Elmore prison in April 2016, state records show. He was the warden at Elmore when Smith died. In March 2013, while he was an assistant warden at St. Clair Correctional Facility, he received a three-day suspension for harassing a female employee under his supervision. She reported that she was not comfortable working with or seeing Headley because of allegedly inappropriate conversations, personnel records show. He claimed that the talks were “mutual,” according to the letter detailing his suspension.

After taking over as warden at Elmore, Headley served an extended probationary period because of a low performance evaluation. Prison officials gave him low marks for a range of responsibilities, from delegating tasks to participating in “emergency situations as directed by the supervisor.” But he held on to the promotion, his employee file shows.

Headley’s oversight of the prison coincided with a spike in violence between inmates, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of corrections department statistical reports. The self-reported rate of inmate assaults at Elmore Correctional Facility tracked closely with the rest of the Alabama prison system until 2017, the analysis shows. That year, Elmore’s rate more than doubled, and the next year it rose further. In 2018 Elmore had more than one assault for every five prisoners, nearly twice the rate of assaults in all Alabama men’s prisons.

In May 2019, Headley’s personnel file shows that he was transferred to Staton prison, just as Daniels had been three years prior. Headley is still the warden there. Prison officials did not make him available for comment or answer questions about his transfer.

After Headley transferred, prison officials promoted another one of the officers accused of attacking Billy Smith, Walter Green, to sergeant in July. His personnel record lists 12 suspensions, including three for falling asleep on duty. Green transferred to Staton prison after his promotion, where he works under Headley.

The Justice Department’s 2019 report on Alabama prisons highlighted mismanagement at the corrections agency. The feds recommended that the prison system assess its leaders—especially wardens—on whether they had the skills necessary to manage and run their facilities.  Neither prison officials nor the governor’s office responded to questions about the status of such an assessment.

‘A state of lawlessness’

Smith’s sister Candace Burgess wonders if the supervisors who worked at Elmore Correctional Facility during her brother’s fatal episode “even think about what happened to him.”

Courtesy of Teresa Smith

Billy Smith, an Alabama state prisoner, with his mother Teresa Smith during family visitation at Elmore Correctional Facility in 2017, a few weeks before he died.

Her brother was serving a 25-year sentence for a 2006 murder. He is survived by three children.

“I used to think he was coming home, and now he’s not,” Burgess said. “I’m not saying he was innocent, or that he didn’t do anything to deserve being in prison, but it’s just wrong how he suffered.”

State investigators arrived at Elmore Correctional Facility on Nov. 14, 2017, a day after Smith suffered a fractured skull and a massive head wound at the prison, according to their report.

The report shows that Headley immediately directed the investigators to interrogate several inmates who said a prisoner, Bryan Blount, had punched Smith in the face during a fight over drug money. However, as investigators continued their probe, they documented numerous examples of bad management practices, potential misconduct, and suspicious activity by Elmore prison supervisors.

The office clerk working during Smith’s fatal ordeal alleged that someone had erased her notes about his time at the shift command office, according to the report. Headley later led investigators to the purported original document in a locked filing cabinet. It was still missing information about Smith—but now, unlike before, it bore the signature of Sgt. Jonathan Richardson, according to the report.

Investigators decided to put Richardson through a polygraph test. They asked if he had seen Smith hogtied outside the shift office, if he had signed the log after it was changed and if he knew who had altered it. “The test showed Sgt. Richardson was deceptive on all the questions and failed the exam,” investigators wrote in their report. The sergeant maintained that he had answered questions truthfully, and claimed not to know why he failed the exam, according to the investigative report.

Assistant Warden Gwendolyn Babers denied ever seeing an inmate abused, according to the report. Still, investigators found that her time card had been edited without explanation on the day Smith was injured. A prisoner said he had seen Babers talking with Waver outside the shift command office while Smith was hogtied outside, an allegation Babers denied. Babers declined to submit to a polygraph test and cut her interview with investigators short.

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Her experience echoes other troubling accounts about how Alabama prison officials handle critically injured or sick prisoners and their families during medical crises, and how little they reveal about those cases, even when inmates die.

According to an Injustice Watch review of their disciplinary files, none of the seven supervisors listed in the investigative report about Smith’s death have been punished. The only explicit consequences for Smith’s death have fallen on Blount and Singleton, who were both indicted for reckless manslaughter and have pleaded not guilty, court records show.

Smith’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit last year against Waver and other prison officials, alleging that “a state of lawlessness” reigns at Elmore Correctional Facility. The suit alleges an environment where “correctional officers were not disciplined or removed from the prison population in response to previous acts of violence.”

The current and former prison officials named as defendants are fighting the case in federal court. They include Singleton, Waver, Headley, and state prisons chief Jeff Dunn. Former associate commissioner Grantt Culliver, who retired in 2018 amid a sexual misconduct scandal, is also a defendant.

‘Nothing has changed’

A 51-year-old Elmore inmate who said he lived in the same dorm as Smith described the prison as a crowded, brutal place.

An inmate at Elmore Correctional Facility

An Elmore Correctional Facility inmate stands in one of the prison’s dorms.

Beatings and stabbings, sexual assaults, and drug overdoses are still common, he said. And inmates still live with the expectation that disrespecting correctional officers, or even the appearance of disrespect, could lead to a beating or worse, “like what happened to Billy,” he said. Inmates also expect that the officers’ bosses will rarely hold them accountable unless the attack is caught on camera or leaked to the press, said the man, who wished to remain anonymous for fear that prison officials would retaliate against him.

And while he said guards showed less aggression toward inmates in the aftermath of Smith’s November 2017 death, it was only a temporary change, according to the inmate.

“Everybody talks about how these buildings are old and dilapidated, but if you get new buildings with the same administration, the same leadership, then nothing changes,” he said.  “If you’re an officer in here, and you don’t condone the corruption, the abuse, you’re going to be a loner in here. You’re going to be shunned by your fellow officers.”

He said “nothing has changed” at Elmore, and cited a recent case to prove his point.

In early 2019, Sgt. Ulysses Oliver assaulted two handcuffed inmates he allegedly found trying to smuggle contraband into Elmore prison.

He struck one of them with his baton, lacerating the prisoner’s face, according to a federal criminal complaint. Oliver wrote a false report about the attack, claiming that he only hit the inmates on their legs with his baton when he had actually hit them across their bodies with his feet and hands as well as the baton, according to prosecutors. Oliver, who pleaded guilty to the assault, is scheduled for sentencing in August 2020.

His superior, Lt. Willie Burks, was indicted in September 2019 for allowing the assaults to happen and lying to a grand jury. Burks has pleaded not guilty; his trial has been delayed until July 27.

Oliver was promoted to sergeant in February 2015 and later transferred to Elmore despite a history of misconduct from his previous post at Tutwiler, a women’s prison. In 2010, he received a reprimand for bringing an unauthorized item into Tutwiler. In 2011, prison officials suspended him for two days for falling asleep on the job.

And in May 2012, prison officials suspended Oliver for allegedly grabbing an inmate by the neck when she wouldn’t stop talking to another prisoner he was escorting to the prison’s health care unit.

The state prison chief at the time, Kim Thomas, signed a letter addressed to Oliver explaining his three-day suspension for the assault. Thomas stressed that the punishment was necessary to show Oliver that he must abide by all rules and regulations.

“Hopefully,” Thomas wrote, “your actions in the future will meet standards.”

Contributing reporting by Connor Sheets of al.com, and by Stender Von Oehsen for Injustice Watch.

To read our series on problems in Alabama prisons, click here.

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