‘They told me he belonged to the state’: Slain Alabama prisoner’s mother kept in dark as her son lay dying

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Teresa Smith, whose son Billy Smith suffered fatal injuries at an Alabama prison in November 2017.

Adeshina Emmanuel

Teresa Smith’s son Billy Smith died in 2017 a prisoner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, which has one of the highest homicide rates of any state prison system. The U.S. Department of Justice alleged in a 2019 report that Alabama prison conditions violate the constitution.

This article is the second in a series detailing problems in Alabama’s prisons.

Arab, AL. —Teresa Smith remembers first hearing about her son’s injuries in November 2017, when a prisoner called her from Elmore Correctional Facility.

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“Mama,” she recalls the man saying, “they took Billy out on a gurney overnight, and they have not brought him back in.”

Teresa Smith called the prison, asking what happened to her son. But it took hours before she learned that Billy Smith had suffered massive brain injuries that would lead to his death weeks later, at age 35. And it would take far longer for her to learn the details of how he got hurt: That after he was injured in a scuffle with another inmate, Smith was beaten some more and hog-tied by guards, and denied treatment for hours.

Last month, Injustice Watch revealed a confidential report compiled by Alabama prison officials that detailed witness accounts of Billy Smith’s deadly ordeal and identified apparent efforts by correctional employees to blur the timeline of events and obscure the roles that they played.

Read More

Secret report: Alabama guards allegedly beat, hog-tied, ignored inmate who later died

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.

As Teresa Smith scrambled to find answers after first hearing that Billy Smith was hurt, she said her calls landed in voicemail, and prison employees were slow to respond. The mother said she then feared the worst: that the Alabama Department of Corrections had already buried Billy Smith in a prison cemetery.

“I was so lost and disrupted,” Teresa Smith said during an interview at her home in Arab, Alabama, with Injustice Watch. “I didn’t know what was going on. All I was saying was, God, please save my baby. Let me see him! Let me see him!”

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.

Prison officials eventually confirmed that they had hospitalized Billy Smith but did not at first reveal where, said his sister Candace Burgess. Burgess said she called hospitals near Elmore, the small town in central Alabama where Billy Smith was serving time for a 2006 murder, trying to find her brother.

Courtesy of Teresa Smith

Teresa Smith visiting her son Billy Smith at Elmore Correctional Facility in 2017. This is the last photo she took with him before he died.

It took hours, Burgess said, before the warden at Elmore Correctional Facility returned a telephone call to report that doctors were treating Billy Smith at a hospital in Montgomery, 160 miles south of Arab.

When Teresa Smith arrived at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery a day or so later, Billy Smith lay handcuffed to his hospital bed unconscious, rigid and twitching, she said. A bandage covered his head, and bruises marked his body. Teresa Smith remembers finding him connected to a life support machine, she said, with a breathing tube down his throat and a wristband reading “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate).

Billy Smith’s family is still unsure how he ended up wearing the do-not-resuscitate wristband.

Witnesses told investigators, the report shows, that state prisoner Bryan Blount had punched Billy Smith in a drug-related dispute at the prison on Nov. 13, 2017. After the fight, according to witness statements in the report, former correctional officer Jeremy Singleton and other prison guards beat Billy Smith again. They allegedly hogtied him outside the prison’s shift command office. Then a nurse denied him treatment at a nearby prison health facility.

 

Read the Report

The Alabama Department of Corrections’ Investigations and Intelligence Division began looking into Billy Smith’s injuries on Nov. 14, 2017. Injustice Watch obtained a copy of the report they produced, which prison officials have kept secret from the public.

Billy Smith was later found unresponsive in a prisoner transport van, hurt worse than before.

“I don’t have any respect for them,” Teresa Smith said of prison officials. “They are heartless. Nobody would tell me anything.”

When Teresa Smith first arrived at the hospital, a few days after Billy Smith was hurt, she said that she questioned the private correctional security guards at her son’s bedside.

“I said, ‘what happened?’ And they would get up and walk out of the room,” she said.

Medical personnel eventually told Teresa Smith that Billy Smith was brain dead, she said. She spent the next several weeks visiting her son, hoping he would wake up, asking prison officials questions they never answered.

In late November 2017, his family says authorities decided to unplug him from life support and remove his breathing tube.

“I asked why I didn’t have a right to say anything about it,” Teresa Smith said. “And they told me that he belonged to the state.”

‘I know with all my heart, as a mama.’

After Billy Smith was hurt at an Alabama prison, paramedics took him to Jackson Hospital in critical condition. His family and friends visited with and prayed for him.

A photo from inside Billy Smith’s hospital room in November 2017. His friends and family bowed their heads, held hands, and prayed over his body. Billy Smith died on Dec. 9, 2017. He was 35, and left behind three children.

Billy Smith is not the first Alabama prisoner left with orders not to be resuscitated whose family was allegedly left in the dark.

The family of Marquette Cummings recently settled a lawsuit against St. Clair Correctional Facility Warden Carter Davenport. Cummings died in the hospital in January 2014, wearing a do-not-resuscitate band, a day after another inmate stabbed him in the eye. Doctors had taken him off life support, apparently under Carter’s instructions, even though his mother said Cummings was responding to verbal commands.

Read More

Alabama prison officials have troubling history of issuing ‘do not resuscitate’ orders without consent

The family of Marquette Cummings sued the Alabama prison system in 2015 after doctors took him off life support under instructions from a warden.

In 2017, at Jackson Hospital, medical staff unplugged Billy Smith from a breathing machine and took him off life support 17 days or so into his hospital stay, according to relatives.

Despite his condition, his mother, Teresa Smith, and his sister Candace Burgess maintained hope that he would survive. The women said they were encouraged when he started breathing on his own.

“I thought it would be a little while, but he would be okay,” Burgess said. “That’s what I was hoping.”

Candace Burgess visits her brother Billy Smith at an Alabama prison.

Courtesy of Candace Burgess

Candace Burgess visiting her late brother Billy Smith in prison. Burgess, 35, remembers Billy Smith as her best friend growing up, and said they would play in the woods for hours, climbing trees against their mother’s advice.

On the morning of Dec. 8, 2017, Teresa Smith sat at her son’s hospital bedside and took his hand, praying for his recovery.

She had given birth to him when she was 14 and raised him without much help from his father, who she said struggled with addiction and crime, like their son. Billy Smith developed a crystal meth habit in his late teens and was convicted of murder at 29.

In 2011, a judge sentenced Billy Smith to 25 years behind bars for fatally shooting Joey Seals on Dec. 4, 2006, in Madison County. Prosecutors first charged him with capital murder, but brought felony murder charges instead as part of a plea deal, according to news reports. Prosecutors alleged that the shooting happened while Billy Smith was robbing Seals at his home. The prosecution found little evidence to dispute the defendant’s story that the two men “were wrestling over the gun and it went off,” Al.com reported. 

Teresa Smith wanted her son, who left behind three young children, to have another chance at life and redemption.

At his hospital bedside, she whispered in his ear: “If you hear mama, squeeze my hand.”

Teresa Smith remembers feeling a slight squeeze from her son.

She whispered again: “Baby you’re coming home, I know with all my heart you’re coming home,” she said.

“And he pulled away from me.”

That afternoon, authorities came for Billy Smith.

Teresa Smith said that they claimed they were moving him to a room on the hospital’s sixth floor. But when she went to the sixth floor to check, she said, there was no sign of her son.

‘Stable enough’

Jackson Park Hospital, where inmate Billy Smith was taken in November 2017 after he suffered fatal injuries at an Alabama prison.

Adeshina Emmanuel

In November 2017, paramedics took Billy Smith from a prison in Elmore, Alabama, to the emergency room at Jackson Hospital about 30 miles south, in Montgomery, where both Alabama’s state capitol and corrections department headquarters are located. Billy Smith had suffered a fractured skull and a bleeding brain. He died 26 days later.

Paramedics took Billy Smith from Jackson Hospital about 1:50 p.m. that day and transported him to the infirmary at Kilby Correctional Facility, about 13 miles up the highway, for long-term-care. The move to a prison infirmary came after “his attending physicians along with the Alabama Department of Corrections physicians had decided inmate Smith was stable enough,” according to the investigative report.

But Billy Smith’s oxygen levels plummeted after he arrived at Kilby. Authorities returned him to Jackson Hospital about 75 minutes later, the report said. A nurse at the hospital later found Billy Smith unresponsive in room number 663.

He was pronounced dead at 3:40 a.m., on Dec. 9, 2017, according to the report.

Billy Smith died from blunt force brain trauma 26 days after he got hurt, the coroner concluded. The corrections agency described his death as “natural” in public reports — even though an autopsy ruled the inmate had succumbed to homicide.

Bryan Blount, the prisoner who allegedly punched Billy Smith, and former correctional sergeant Jeremy Singleton, accused of later abusing Smith, are charged with manslaughter and scheduled for trial March 23.

Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Officials at Jackson Hospital declined to answer questions about Billy Smith’s final days in their care. Warden Joseph Headley, one of several prison officials whom Billy Smith’s family is suing, failed to return calls for comment. And a state prison spokesperson refused to answer questions, “out of respect for the legal process.”

Looking forward: ‘This is the only thing that keeps me going.’

Teresa Smith's son, Billy Smith, died in November 2017 after suffering injuries at an Alabama prison.

Adeshina Emmanuel

Teresa Smith grew up poor in northern Alabama, the youngest of eight children, and gave birth to Billy Smith when she was 14. “I remember the doctor calling me names, telling me I was a young Jezebel,” she said of that day, “And it was scary, but when I got that baby in my arms, everything went away.”

On a rainy January evening, Teresa Smith sat talking with Injustice Watch about her son’s case in the living room of her one-story home in Arab, a small rural town in northern Alabama. One of her grandchildren sat watching cartoons on the television, paying little attention to the grave conversation going on around her.

Pictures of Billy Smith adorn the walls and line the shelves of a tall cabinet next to the television. Teresa Smith still reads the framed poems her son wrote while in prison, which occupy the case along with his bronze baby shoes and other family artifacts.

Teresa Smith asked her grandchild, age 9, if she remembered her uncle Billy. The girl, who only ever spoke with her uncle on the phone during his incarceration, said he was nice, but cannot think of much more to say. She remembers, however, that her grandmother used to visit her at home more often before Billy Smith died.

Billy Smith. He died at 35 from injuries suffered at an Alabama prison.

Courtesy of Teresa Smith

A picture of Billy Smith on a wall at his mother’s home in Arab, Alabama.

Since losing her firstborn, Teresa Smith said, her blood pressure has shot up. She struggles to sleep most nights and rarely leaves the house, even for family functions.

“I’m not ever going to take my life, but I pray every day that God takes me,” she said.

Despite the pain that her son’s death has caused, she said she is determined to continue to pursue a federal lawsuit against prison officials. She spoke of the lawsuit: “This is the only thing that keeps me going — that’s why I hope something comes about and saves some lives.”

Next: Employee records show culture of an Alabama corrections department tolerant of neglect, abuse and misconduct.

Read the lawsuit filed on behalf of Billy Smith’s family: